CHARLESTON (AP) — House Speaker Richard Thompson has resigned from the West Virginia Legislature to join Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Cabinet as secretary of Veterans Assistance.
Thompson will succeed Secretary Keith Gwinn, who plans to retire in mid-June because of health issues. Tomblin will call the House into session within 10 days so that delegates can elect a new leader. Tomblin and Thompson are both Democrats, and their party holds a slim majority in the House with 54 of 100 seats.
Gwinn was a 20-year Navy veteran when he joined the state Division of Veterans’ Affairs in 2000. The agency was elevated to the Cabinet in 2011 with Gwinn as its first secretary. With nearly 300 full-time positions and a $23 million annual budget, the department provides various services in a state where one in 10 residents is a military veteran.
“Secretary Gwinn accomplished much during his tenure, including his role in helping to secure the largest federal grant for a state veteran’s cemetery,’’ Tomblin said in a statement.
The department also oversees a rest home in Cabell County, a nursing home in Harrison County and an outreach program that enlists social workers to seek out and assess the needs of veterans. Gwinn said his office helped veterans file a record 7,500 claims last year and obtain $221 million in federal benefits and assistance.
“I’ve had a pleasure of having a job while being able to help my comrades,’’ Gwinn said.
Gwinn said he received disabling injuries during ship deployments while in the Navy. He said he also suffers from a hereditary disease that attacks his joints, and has required eight surgeries in the past six years.
“My mind still works, but my body’s not helping,’’ Gwinn, 59, said. He added, “With the hospital appointments I have now and the medical treatment I’m receiving, I’m not doing my veterans any service when I’m not able to be at work.’’
Thompson was elected to his fourth term as speaker in January, and the Legislature completed its 2013 regular session last month. Thompson has generally continued the prevailing trend among West Virginia’s conservative Democratic leadership to focus more on modest tax relief and paying down debts than on expanding programs. He helped craft the ongoing repeal of the state’s sales tax on groceries, for instance.
Thompson has also pushed for mine safety proposals in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in an underground 2010 explosion. The future speaker was not yet born when a mine roof collapse killed his father in 1952. More recently, Thompson played a role in securing final changes to Tomblin’s legislative overhaul of the public school system before it passed this session. These were sought by groups representing teachers and school workers, who along with labor unions generally have been key supporters of Thompson’s.
A 60-year-old lawyer, the Wayne County Democrat served in the Army in the 1970s including as a military police officer.
In 2011, Thompson was among several state leaders who competed with Tomblin for the Democratic nomination.