Despite its culturally conservative character and populace of white, blue-collar voters, West Virginia has proven a tough nut to crack for Republicans outside of presidential races.
Democratic stances on culture and coal proved insurmountable for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, but most of West Virginia’s own Democrats are adept at distancing themselves from the national party when needed.
Yes, in 2010, Republican representative David McKinley beat Democrat Mike Oliverio by a hair in the state’s 1st congressional district. But the Senate race proved deeply disappointing to the GOP, as John Raese, who as late as the first week of October appeared to be on track to be the first Republican senator elected in this state since 1956, lost to former governor Joe Manchin by eleven percentage points.
Manchin’s election required him to step down as governor, and state-senate president Earl Ray Tomblin became acting governor. (Tomblin retains his title as senate president but is not collecting his legislative salary or presiding over the chamber.)
Tomblin’s biography seems like a litany of clichés for powerful state lawmakers with shady ties in rural states. His mother, Freda Tomblin, owned a pair of lucrative dog tracks and his father, Earl Tomblin, was a sheriff twice convicted of election fraud and bribery. The more recent case, from 1989, featured the elder Tomblin paying a sheriff candidate $10,000 for a salaried position as a part-time investigator for the sheriff’s office that required little work.
Tomblin’s family owned Southern Amusement Co., a vending-machine outfit that distributed “gray” video-poker machines before the state legalized video lottery in 2001. The term “gray” meant that while they were purportedly not meant to be used for gambling, just for amusement, it was an open secret that many venue owners paid players. After becoming senate president in 1994, Earl Ray Tomblin left his position with the company, and his family sold the business the following year — to “Joe C. Ferrell, a former state delegate from Logan County who pleaded guilty to racketeering and tax charges in federal court last month.”
Around the time they sold Southern Amusement, the Tomblins expanded the dog-racing venture. The state legislature started setting aside money for dog racing in 1993 as an incentive for dog owners to breed greyhounds; the fund was created when Tomblin was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Since 1993, Tomblin Kennels; Tomblin’s mother, Freda; his brother, Carl Tomblin; and other members of the Tomblin family have received at least $4,194,014 in breeders’-fund bonus payments. One of Tomblin’s Democratic rivals, state treasurer John Perdue, tried to make the dog tracks an issue in the primary but got limited traction.
The West Virginia state legislature is deemed a part-time job, and legislators are currently paid only $20,000 in annual salary. But the perks can add up. Tomblin’s travel expenses over the past eleven years amount to $268,232.88. In 1998, he spent $74,000 to redecorate his office, and the Charleston Daily Mail detailed some of the expenses: “about $800 to re-letter doors at the Capitol with Tomblin’s name instead of Manchin’s, about $2,700 for pens and pencils with Tomblin’s name on them,more than $7,000 for letterhead stationery and envelopes, $469.93 for 8-by-10-inch photos of Tomblin.”
While accumulating enormous political power in the state, Tomblin has received exceptionally little public scrutiny. He was first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1974, was elected to the state senate in 1980, and has been senate president since 1995. He began this year’s six-way Democratic gubernatorial primary a heavy favorite and won by 15 percentage points.
As late as November 2010, on the eve of his debut as governor, local press called him “something of an enigma.” The local public radio station declared, “when he became acting governor earlier this month, the appointment left many West Virginians asking, ‘Who?’”