Democrats Need Moderate Speaker

Republicans are dreaming if they believe there’s a chance they can install one of their own as speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates. But it’s a new day in the House, so to speak, so conservative voices will be heard more than in the past as a new speaker is named.

Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, is leaving the House to take a job in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration. A new speaker will be selected during a special session of the House next week.

Thompson has been praised for his leadership, and what’s interesting is that some conservatives have joined in lauding him. Frankly, Thompson- though clearly a mainstream Democrat – was not the hard-core liberal some observers feared during his term as speaker.

When he won the post in 2006, the House was whatever Democrat leaders wanted it to be. But last fall, Republicans gained an enormous number of seats. They now hold 46 of the 100 delegate positions.

Look, too, at major pieces of legislation earlier this year. Many, such as public school reform, had a conservative flavor to them. That’s not to say Democrat leaders have become the new Grand Old Party. On some key issues, such as tax and regulatory reform, Republicans are not getting their way.

Both of the two leading candidates for speaker – Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, and Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison – are cultivating the image of moderates rather than liberals.

White seems to be favored by the business community. Miley is being supported by organized labor. That tells you something – but, again, Miley insists he’s a moderate.

Miley’s supporters say that, judged by pledges of support – including most delegates from the Northern Panhandle – he’s got the speakership locked up. But when Democrats meet in caucus next week, they’ll be voting by secret ballot. People have been known to say one thing, then vote another when they believe no one will know of their duplicity.

Once the decision has been made in caucus, it should be final. For decades, even after tooth-and-nail battles between Democrats for the speakership, all in the party have united behind the choice of the caucus. Even with 46 votes, Republicans can’t win.

There’s been some talk of alternate scenarios. In one, the conservative Democrat – White – could, if he loses in the party caucus, still win the speakership. Remember, that’s done by a vote of the full House, including Republicans. Assuming White loses in the caucus but goes onto the House floor with five rogue Democrats and Republican support, he wins.

It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. For starters, White may not be a liberal, but he is a Democrat. When he discusses the speakership, he talks about what’s good for his party.

And presumably, he’d like to remain in the House past 2014, when he’s up for re-election. How’d you like to be White trying to explain why he’s working hand in glove with Republicans, in a county where 81 percent of the registered voters are Democrats?

There’s another possible outcome. It would require five Democrats to be upset enough with the caucus choice to unite with Republicans once the vote is taken on the House floor – thereby electing a GOP delegate, presumably the party’s leader, Tim Armstead of Kanawha County. Don’t look for that many Democrats to, in effect, desert their party.

But here’s the thing: Neither Miley nor White will be able to go back to what liberals view as the good old days of ignoring Republicans in the House. Forty-six votes may not be a majority, but it could be part of a conservative coalition. It would take just five conservative Democrats – and there are more than that – to join such a coalition for it to rule the day on important legislation.

Democrats have another reason to elect a moderate-to-conservative speaker: 2014. It would take just five more Republican delegates elected that fall for the GOP to control the House. Mountain State voters seem to have become increasingly conservative. A House turned liberal – or even in which the speaker shuts conservative initiatives off – could prompt some voters to vote for Republican delegates in 2014.

As matters stand, it appears Miley will be the next speaker. He has pledges of support from 37 delegates. Ten of them would have to change their minds when the secret ballot slips are passed around for White to stage a come-from-behind victory.

That’s highly unlikely.

Myer can be reached at