By Lawrence Messina
House Speaker Richard Thompson will resign from the West Virginia Legislature next month to join Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Cabinet as secretary of Veterans Assistance, the governor announced Thursday.
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 Thursday. 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.
“Throughout my years in public service, I’ve championed for our veterans — supporting a number of bills that honor and further assist these brave men and women,” Thompson said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the staff at our state’s veterans’ facilities, collaborating with our many veterans organizations across the state as well as ensuring we continue to provide support to the men and women who have served our state and nation,”
Fellow Democrats expressing interest in succeeding Thompson as speaker include Majority Leader Brent Boggs of Braxton County, Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley of Harrison County and Delegate Doug Skaff of Kanawha County. But with GOP delegates holding 46 seats after November election gains, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead plans to seek the speakership, as he did in January.
“We’ll be having discussions with members of both parties over the next few weeks,” the Kanawha County Republican said. “There are a number of conservative Democrats in the House who have not been pleased with the direction that some of the policies have gone in the House in the last several years.”
Tomblin already has a former legislative leader in his Cabinet. Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette served as Senate president in the 1990s. Tomblin himself was Senate president when he won a special election for governor in 2011. Thompson was among several state leaders who competed with Tomblin for the Democratic nomination that year. Tomblin won a full term as governor in November.