BECKLEY — Although Democrats have held the majority in the West Virginia Legislature since the Great Depression, the 2015 legislative session will be a horse — or perhaps an elephant — of a different color.
For the first time in 83 years, the GOP will take a majority in the House with 64 seats in the 100-member legislative body.
And Republicans gained seven seats in the Senate, leaving what was first an even 17-17 split between the two parties. Democratic Sen. Daniel Hall said he switched to the Republican party Wednesday, a move that will help the GOP secure a majority in the upper chamber of the West Virginia Legislature.
The Wyoming County lawmaker confirmed his party change with The Associated Press on Wednesday evening.
Current House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the caucus was “very excited” and “already rolling up sleeves and getting to work.”
He said the Republicans expected to have the House majority by seven seats, and were surprised by the 14-seat margin.
He said the GOP hopes to work with its Democratic colleagues and welcomes their input, which is a feeling the minority has not always felt in the past.
“We are all elected by voters, and I think it is incumbent upon us to listen to their concerns and have a voice in the process,” he said. “Our members felt that if a new proposal was raised it was rejected simply because it came from the Republican caucus, and that is not the way we should run the Legislature. There may be things we don’t agree on, but we should be able to work together.”
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Democrats in West Virginia fell victim to the “Obama drag.”
“We could not overturn the sentiment that Washington Democrats are trying to destroy the livelihood of West Virginians, even though nearly all Democrats here support the coal industry,” Miley said of the president who is in his second term. “I don’t know if you could ever point to one thing (to cause this power flip), but coal is the biggest factor in my opinion. Obama has damaged the Democratic Party in West Virginia.”
He added that he looks forward to working with the new leadership.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said what was initially an even split in the 34-member Senate is “an unusual set of circumstances.”
“These are uncharted waters we have never faced before. Although it happened about 100 years ago, we had a different (state) constitution then,” he said.
He said current leadership had been discussing how Senate leaders will be selected next session.
“We are looking at what the viable solutions might be,” he said. “It is always one thing to get elected and another thing to govern. Both sides will recognize we want to avoid the kind of bickering that surrounds the Congress in D.C.”
Kessler said he is confident the Senate will be able to adapt and work in a bipartisan manner.
He noted that the Senate came together to overcome difficulties when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, left the Senate presidency to move to the governor’s mansion.
“Then we worked together across party lines to elect an acting president to preside over the Senate. I’m confident the same kind of camaraderie will prevail,” he said.
Calls placed to Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, Majority House Leader Harry White, D-Mingo, and Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Sarah Plummer is a reporter for The (Beckley) Register-Herald.