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Tomblin named W.Va. governor

By Staff | Oct 5, 2011

West Virginia acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin takes in the reaction from the crowd of supporters greeting him at his campaign headquarters at the Marriott Hotel Tuesday night. (Photo courtesy of Chris Stadelman)

CHARLESTON (AP) – After nearly four decades in the Legislature and a year running the state, Earl Ray Tomblin is acting no more.

Tomblin, West Virginia’s longest serving Senate president, became acting governor late last year, when popular Gov. Joe Manchin was elected to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. But the state Supreme Court ruled two months later that an elected governor must take office within a year of Manchin’s Nov. 15 departure.

On Tuesday, Tomblin made it official by fending off Republican Bill Maloney in a race in which the Logan County Democrat fought off attempts to tie him to the policies of President Barack Obama, which are wildly unpopular in the state.

Campaigning as the logical heir to Manchin, who left during his second term, Tomblin cited how West Virginia’s economy has fared better than its national counterpart. State government finances have remained stable, with recent surpluses coming without program cuts or worker layoffs.

“There are things that we have pushed on the entire campaign,” Tomblin said after his win. “Tonight shows that the people of West Virginia believe in what we’ve been doing.”

Growing up, Tomblin lived above his family’s restaurant in Chapmanville, in West Virginia’s southern coalfields. He received a bachelor’s in business management from West Virginia University and a master’s in business administration from Marshall University.

Tomblin entered politics just as he was finishing college, with his election to the House of Delegates in 1974 at age 22.

Tomblin moved from the House to the Senate in the 1980 election. While the veteran chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Tomblin was nominated by fellow Democrats to become that chamber’s president in 1994. He has served nine terms in that leadership post, and became the longest-serving Senate president in state history in 2003.

The Legislature designated the Senate president the lieutenant governor in 2000. It was from that position that Tomblin began acting as governor when Manchin left West Virginia for Washington.

Tomblin said being governor was always an appealing prospect throughout his nearly four decades in office.

“I didn’t dwell on that thought a great deal, but anyone who runs for public office, you look ahead a little bit,” Tomblin said. “The governor’s office is a position that many people think about, but few are fortunate enough to even get on the ballot.”

While Maloney, who had never held public office, used Tomblin’s years in the Legislature to paint him as an out-of-touch career politician, supporters said Tomblin’s experience make him well prepared to lead the state.

“He knows more about state government and the finances of this state than anybody that’s ever run for governor,” said former Adjutant General Allen Tackett, who held the job for 15 years. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he will make a good governor. He works well with people and he can get the agreements to get things done for the state of West Virginia.

“He is by far the most qualified person to ever run for governor in the state of West Virginia.”

Tomblin bought a local restaurant and also owned a real estate company during his legislative tenure. He also was involved in a business owned by other family members, Southern Amusement, before they sold it in the 1990s. Southern Amusement rented vending and entertainment devices to bars and clubs, including video poker machines. Such Vegas-style devices were widely believed to offer illegal payouts, and were outlawed with the creation of the limited video lottery system in 2001.

Tomblin has said that he held no leadership role at Southern Amusement, and that it was never accused of anything improper while his family owned it. But the business has been fodder for attacks on the Democrat during the race, as has his family’s greyhound breeding business.

After winning the May primary without the support of labor unions, Tomblin gained the backing of those groups before Tuesday’s election. He also secured endorsements from the National Rifle Association and an array of state business organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Coal Association.

State Sen. Truman Chafin, who has worked with Tomblin as the long-term majority leader, said the fact that both labor and business interests backed Tomblin “speaks in volumes about Earl Ray’s ability to put things together.”

“He’s a man of integrity,” added Chafin, who became such good friends with Tomblin that the governor was the best man at Chafin’s wedding. “You’ve got to know Earl Ray. He’s like an all-American boy, a Boy Scout-type of guy.”

Like Manchin, Tomblin is known as a fiscal conservative. He’s expected to continue the recent trend against new spending that’s instead favored paying down debts and building up emergency reserves. He’s asked lawmakers to build consensus around regulations for the Marcellus shale natural gas field.

Tomblin has been married to Joanne Tomblin, the longtime president of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, for more than 30 years. They have a son, Brent, who attends Marshall.