By Lawrence Messina
Helping Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin respond to Obama administration decrees amid West Virginians’ distrust of Washington proved a recurring challenge for chief of staff Rob Alsop, who stepped down from the position last week.
Alsop told The Associated Press that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies and provisions from the sprawling federal health care overhaul would prompt rounds of fact-finding and debate during his 2 1/2 years as the Democratic governor’s top aide.
“I think the policy issues that are being driven at the federal level can put a lot of challenges on us that we didn’t foresee coming,” Alsop said. “Those were issues where we had federal — I won’t call them mandates — but federal requirements that came out that were probably the most challenging, particularly given the political climate and the mood of the electorate in West Virginia toward the federal government. Doing the right thing has been difficult.”
But Alsop believes his hardest task came after State Police Cpl. Marshall Lee Bailey and Trooper Eric Michael Workman were fatally shot in August 2012 by a suspect. Alsop recalled how the governor was cautious about going to the hospital where the men’s loved ones had gathered.
“He’s a really private person. I know for him, if something happened to one of his family members, the last thing he would want to see is a long line of politicians coming in to sort of interrupt the family’s grieving time,” Alsop said. “But we made the call to go down, and when he knelt down and thanked them for everything their sons had done, it was really emotional for him and emotional for the families ... One of the things the governor doesn’t realize enough is how much it means when he visits, the difference he can make.”
Alsop, 35, plans to join the Bowles Rice firm later this month. Besides practicing law, the Webster County native held several government posts before his time with Tomblin. He was a deputy general counsel for then-Gov. Joe Manchin before becoming the chief lawyer for his Department of Revenue and later, its Cabinet secretary. Alsop was also chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Carte Goodwin, appointed following the June 2010 death of Robert C. Byrd.
Having eyed the gubernatorial chief of staff job previously, Alsop said he welcomed the chance to serve in that role for Tomblin and found “it was a lot better than I thought it would be.”
“You are involved in, for good or for bad, just about everything that goes on in the executive branch. To be in the position of trusted adviser and help run the executive branch is something that was very appealing,” Alsop said.
Tomblin began acting as governor in November 2010, when Manchin won the special Senate election prompted by Byrd’s death. There was a lot going on in those opening months, Alsop said.
“There wasn’t a traditional election where you have two or three months for a transition,” Alsop said. “We quickly built a team, and then we started in mid-November working on a budget and a legislative package ... It was all uncertain as when there would be an election and how long we would all have jobs.”
Tomblin later won an October 2011 special election for Manchin’s unexpired term as governor, and was then elected to a full term in November 2012. Alsop said he and Tomblin did not know each other very well, but they quickly built a solid relationship.
“One of the governor’s admirable traits or attributes is the ability and willingness to sit down and listen to the folks around him, to seek out different points of view,” Alsop said.
“My job was more to get together the right information at the right time so he could see a complete landscape, and then provide my opinion as to how we should move forward. Sometimes he agreed, sometimes he didn’t and sometimes he had his own vantage point and we moved forward on it.”
Alsop considers the new rules for Marcellus shale gas development and this session’s wide-ranging education measure as the administration’s biggest achievements during his tenure. He praised the governor’s decision to expand Medicaid, citing the estimated 91,500 West Virginians expected to gain health coverage. But Alsop cited Tomblin’s continuing concerns, as well.
“The governor is particularly worried about federal spending because during his first 15 years as Finance chairman and then as president of the Senate, he worked to bail the state out of (the Public Employees Insurance Agency), the Teachers Retirement System, workers’ comp,” Alsop said. “He’s seen when you get into things you can’t pay for, how ugly it is to clean them up in the end.”