By ANN ALI
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. —An orchestra conductor faces a group of musicians and leads the interpretation of the score they’ve all gathered to perform. A circus ringmaster guides an audience through the various acts in a big-top show, introducing what comes next and interacting with the wild performers.
Leading the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates may have some similarities to leading a circus or a symphony, but all the players and moving parts may, at times, be even more complicated than leading elephants through a concerto.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, laughs at the comparisons, and says he would rather be described as a symphony conductor.
While Armstead conceded that a spirited debate could sometimes be compared to a circus, he said that’s part of the process sometimes.
“I think that is the beauty of the process,” he said. “It’s the challenge of the leader to get everyone moving as much as we can in the right direction.
“I look at it as a symphony; sometimes people outside the process look at it as a circus, when really it’s what is necessary to get to the right place. … It’s the right way to govern, and I think that’s why I’m so honored to be a part of it.”
The House speaker’s counterpart in the upper chamber is Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2000 and spent many years at Armstead’s side as the minority whip. Armstead, first elected to the House in 1998, served four sessions as minority leader.“Tim and I are great friends — old friends — and we’ve reflected on the fact, years ago when we began this journey, who would have thought we’d be in these roles?” Carmichael said.Carmichael is in his first term as Senate president, and Armstead was first selected as speaker in 2015. The two said they may not always see exactly eye-to-eye, but they have a close relationship that allows them to communicate openly.
“We never get to the point where we are disagreeable,” Carmichael said. “He’s offered his perspective on several occasions, as have I to him, and I think we learn from one another and make each other better.”
The way Armstead sees it, the two are soldiers from the same unit.
“We’ve been in this battle, so to speak, for the future of our state for many years together,” he said. “I think he and I, I would say, probably have one of the closest relationships I’ve ever seen between speaker and Senate president.”
Leading the House and Senate comes with some not-so-glamorous tasks, such as assigning legislators’ parking spaces.“I think once you become the speaker, everyone goes into the job thinking that you’re going to be able to allow full debate at times, that you’re going to let everybody have their say, everything is going to be a matter of compromise and getting around the table and finding common ground, but as you go through the job of being speaker, you realize that isn’t always the case,” Armstead said. “At times, you’ve just got to take the lead and actually be the person putting out in front of the Legislature a set of goals and a vision for where you’re going.”Armstead said he has learned a lot about what works and doesn’t.
“I’m trying to put those in place as I go now into my second term as speaker, but what has really become more and more evident to me is that the speaker is not only there to manage the day-to-day flow to the house — assign bills, assign committees — but also to help create that vision and keep enthusiasm and direction to that vision. And hopefully I’m getting better at that every year.”
Carmichael said he loves the responsibility that comes with the role of Senate president.
“I miss the day-to-day debate and engagement in the discussion, but I love having your hands on the layers that make public policy in West Virginia,” he said. “This year is a little more responsibility, and I love it. I’m embracing it.”
Carmichael said his legislative experience has given him a broad perspective, having been in both the majority and minority.
“I am really intently focused on protecting the minority interest and making sure we hear all sides of the issues,” he said. “In my office, you’ll see posters and so forth that accentuate that — Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln. I have that perspective not from a racial or religious perspective, but from being in the minority party in West Virginia.
“Great ideas aren’t limited to Democrat or Republican. I don’t even look to see whose name is on a bill, whether or not we decide to run the bill. If it’s a great idea, I want to move it forward.”
Carmichael said he’s protective of the other senators.
“We meet every morning on the bills we’re going to advance,” he said. “I understand: If somebody introduced a bill, then they have an interest in it, but the overriding issue is the budget this year.”
Long-time lobbyists gathered around the upper rotunda March 13, when asked about the style of leadership this year, agreed the leadership team seemed more organized in its approach this year.
“I think they learned a lot last year with their approach,” one lobbyist said. “It’s been less ideological, and even the House is more serious about getting work done.”
Senate Majority Whip Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said it’s a more inclusive Republican party because of the way members were treated when they were in the minority.
“Right now we have a subcommittee chaired by a Democrat,” Blair said. “That never would have happened under their leadership.”
Carmichael said there are plenty of issues that “maybe outside folks want me to just run over opposing views and force it down people’s throat, but that’s not my style,” he said.
“I want to hear and understand and accommodate those viewpoints, and at least be in dialogue with those who have a different perspective,” he said. “I have a philosophical orientation toward smaller government, personal responsibility and individual freedoms, so that’s the paradigm through which I view many of these things.
“At the end of the day, other people have great ideas, and the goal here is to try to find a way to move West Virginia forward in the quickest, most expedient manner.”
Carmichael has spoken repeatedly about what he’s keeping the Senate focused on this year: Civil justice reform to create a fair, predictable court system; education reform to provide more authority and flexibility at the local level; regulatory reform; and tax reform.Carmichael said the Senate has stayed away from a social agenda because the focus of this session must be jobs.“These are the things upon which we base the resurgence and revitalization of West Virginia,” Carmichael said. “The people of West Virginia validated what the Republican-led Legislature had done over the past two years by increasing our margin in the Senate by four new members.”
Carmichael said it’s important to provide a clear vision of the important issues in order to be able to move the state in that direction, because there are so many issues and such a variety of interest groups that want input on the process.
“There’s often people that want to impede or delay the process, and we have to deal with those in a democratic manner,” he said. “This is not a dictatorship, and it shouldn’t be. That’s the biggest hurdle: The intensity and the complication of the process by outside interest groups.”
Armstead said his goals are in line with Carmichael’s, and while the huge budget deficit this year “is an incredibly important issue,” Armstead wants to see the Legislature simultaneously work on a few others. He said job creation is the No. 1 priority, with the goal of generating more money for businesses and citizens to spend in their communities, and the House has been looking at different ways to address the state’s drug epidemic as well.
“One of the things we promised to do — and we’ve kept our promise — we wanted to have more debate and discussion,” Armstead said. “When you bring those issues to the forefront and have debate and discussion, that is the way government should work. It is a time-consuming process, and not everything can be accomplished overnight, but I think in order to make good laws, you have to explore all the different facets of a particular issue and listen to people on both sides of the issue and come to the right conclusion.”
Democratic Gov. Jim Justice has introduced multiple budget plans and has needled the Legislature to come up with its own.
Carmichael and Armstead joined legislators March 13 to outline their budget framework, which is coming especially early this year. Carmichael said the budget crisis is the most difficult in the state’s history, which is why the members are so focused on spending every dollar as efficiently as possible. Armstead said the reason the Republican Party came forward with a budget plan to only spend the dollars available is because that’s what West Virginians expect.
“That’s what they’re having to do each and every day,” Armstead said. “That is a very difficult thing — to be able to tackle the challenge of deciding what are the top priorities of government, what government can and can’t do. But it’s important for the future of our state that we really get a handle on the spending we’ve had over the years and truly set priorities.
“This isn’t just about this year’s budget. It’s about the role of government and what we can and can’t do and how much the people of West Virginia can afford to do.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with how Carmichael and Armstead are running the show.Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, was first elected to the Legislature in 1988. He said the Democrats aren’t getting much input this year.“It seems like now that we’re in the minority, we’re offering some suggestions, but we’re not given a lot of leeway concerning our positions on issues,” Prezioso said. “They’re set in their ways about what they want to do.
“Certainly the election proved that they have a mandate by the number of them that were elected. They truly believe that’s the right way to do it, and you can’t fault them for that.”
Prezioso said he hoped there would be enough Democrats “to have consideration to temper the edge on positions.”
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, was first elected to the House in 2004 and spent one session as speaker. Miley said he’s been surprised at the content of bills so far.
He suggested workforce training and education bills, as well as infrastructure proposals.
“I don’t see any real, meaningful effort to address the problems we have in this state on the front end,” Miley said, noting the addiction epidemic specifically.
He said everyone will be a different type of leader or speaker, and Armstead’s style is a tightly controlled agenda for every committee.
“I think that’s what we are seeing with regard to some of the very conservative agenda items that don’t, on the surface, appear to be moving the state very far very fast,” Miley said. “I wish the agenda would be more reflective of policies that other states that are meeting and finding success are implementing.”
Former Senate President Jeff Kessler, a Democrat from Marshall County, said one of the benefits of being the Senate president or House speaker is the power to make policy decisions.
“One thing I learned, while you’re there, you’re only there a short period of time, so you’d better take advantage of the opportunities you have while you have them, because nothing lasts forever,” Kessler said. “A case in point was the future fund I got passed.”
Kessler said what he’s seen of this legislative session so far has been a lot of posturing and maneuvering to try to get the public to take a side.
“I think the governor senses the Republicans are staunchly going to be opposed to any tax increases — certainly among the magnitude he’s proposing,” Kessler said. “And the Republicans have shot back, knocking people off his confirmation lists, having press announcements like yesterday that really just said, ‘We believe in living within our means,’ with no new taxes and more cuts without identifying the cuts they’re going to make.
“There’s a long way to go in these next 27 days or so to get there.”
Carmichael said he thinks, in many respects, Justice embraces the Republican Party’s agenda, especially on regulatory reform and education reform.
“Tax reform is a different story — that’s where we have the most differences with the governor,” Carmichael said. “I want to work with him to understand his philosophy, and hopefully he has an open mind to understanding what we’re trying to do.”
Kessler said the policies Justice came out with are similar to proposals he campaigned on when he ran for governor in 2016 and lost to Justice in the primary election.
Carmichael said the public voted for the right-leaning policies Justice elaborated during the campaign — which included a pledge not to raise taxes.
“He can say the people were with him during the election, but then you can’t change horses after the election just for political purposes,” Carmichael said.
Kessler said as much as legislators may disagree about policy, he still respects them all.“I consider them friends,” Kessler said. “We worked in the Legislature, not just in the political arena but also in business and client matters, and I’ve always found Armstead to be an upstanding, honest, hardworking guy.“Same with Mitch. He sat next to me, and we actually agreed on a lot of things, but just how we get there is different. And Jim, I don’t know very well, other than working with business legislation, and I would not change those votes either because they were good things to do at the time.”
Carmichael said he doesn’t think this year’s legislative session has generated the same volume of opposition as the past two sessions.
“I think through that election process, (the voters) sent an undeniable message, an unmistakable message: This is the new direction we want to go,” he said. “So then it takes the anger of the vocal minority out of the process. They just have nothing upon which to base their anger because the voters have given us a validation of that agenda.”
Armstead said he has probably become a little more thick-skinned since becoming House speaker, but he still believes in having a civil and respectful dialogue.
“I’ve been disappointed by some of the things said about my friends and colleagues in the Legislature,” Armstead said. “They work hard every day to solve the problems that face our state, and I take more offense to criticism of my team than me — I expect to hear that.
“I work with these people day in and day out. I know where their heart is — they want to move our state forward, and they’ve given up a lot to be here and do that.”
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