Pledges of Support Not Reliable

Based solely on a very early scorecard, it appears Mingo County Democrat Harry Keith White will become the new speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates later this summer.

But as Marshall County educator Scott Varner might tell White, don’t count your chickens until the House Democrat Caucus votes. And as Varner might remind other delegates, don’t believe everything you hear about letting bygones be bygones.

Incumbent House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, is leaving that post to join the executive branch as head of the state Department of Veterans Assistance. Sometime probably in mid-June, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will summon delegates to Charleston to select a new speaker.

After a few days in which several names were mentioned as potential candidates for the job, just two seem real possibilities. They are White, who is House Finance Committee chairman, and Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, also has said he may seek the speaker’s post, but that isn’t going to happen. Though Republicans have made enormous gains in power in the House, the speaker’s job still will be decided in the Democrat Caucus.

Both Miley and White have begun the war of press releases. Miley’s announcement hints he may be angling for support from younger delegates. He’s 47 and, in his release, he stressed he “routinely allows members of all ages to undertake as much responsibility in the political process as they are willing to accept …”

But White has been around the Capitol far longer than Miley; White was elected to the House in 1992, Miley in 2004. White, 67, has said he wants to stress youth and experience.

A press release on behalf of White, sent out by Delegate Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha, indicates White may be off to an early lead. It notes support for him from Skaff and seven other delegates, including some from northern counties.

But both White and Miley understand how deceptive pledges of support can be. They were in the House in 2006, when then-Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, retired. A hot fight for the post developed between Thompson and Varner, who at the time was majority whip.

It seemed closer than it was, in large measure because Varner relied on pledges of support from delegates, including some from the Northern Panhandle, who may well have switched to Thompson during the secret-ballot Democrat Caucus vote.

Whatever pledges are made in politics that no one takes these things personally, the reality is different. After he challenged Thompson, Varner never again held a leadership position in the House. He was succeeded in the election last fall by Delegate David Evans, a Republican.

Lawmakers deciding whether to back Miley or White will be reminded, ever so subtly, of course, that there is a price to pay for betting on the wrong horse.

Members of the Democrats’ leadership team in the House seem split, with some backing Miley and others favoring White. There has been speculation that if a vote were taken now, it would be quite close between the two.

That means good old-fashioned political deal making may play a crucial role. Committee chairmanships and other plum positions will be sought and promised in return for support, just as they were when Thompson and Varner squared off. And, again, those in chairmanships now will be reminded retaining those roles is not automatic.

And it may well be that both White and Miley will go into the caucus believing they have the 28 or so votes needed to win – based on promises made to them. But because the process is by secret ballot, it is quite possible a few delegates will speak publicly one way, then vote another. Hey, it’s politics.

We’ll see, in just a few weeks.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at