By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the back yard of the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion in Charleston, on a smooth gravel pad laid out in the shape of an outline of the state of West Virginia, sit more than a dozen raised garden beds.
In those wooden beds, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin uses some of his spare time to raise vegetables. There are rows of potatoes, beans, peppers and even green-topped carrots.
“Carrots are hard,” Tomblin conceded. “Try to get them out as early as possible.
Clay is something with which the 64-year-old career politician is intimately familiar. Growing up in Chapmanville, Tomblin would learn how to coax things to grow in the clay-rich soil.
“When you grew up like I did, everyone grew gardens,” Tomblin said.
The backyard garden is just one of the things Tomblin says he’ll miss when he retires from public life. When Governor-elect Jim Justice takes office Jan. 16, Tomblin will be saying goodbye to a political career that has spanned 42 years.
“It’s going to be strange not being in office,” Tomblin said from the confines of a leather-backed chair at a conference table in his office at the State Capitol. “My whole adult life has been centered around this building.”
‘I Didn’t Know What I Wanted to Do’
When Tomblin first ran for the state House of Delegates in 1974, he was one of the youngest-ever members to be elected to the state Legislature. “I was graduating college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Tomblin, who was only 21 at the time.Tomblin was 22 by the time he took office, and went on to serve six years in the House.“When I first came, there were no open meetings like there are today,” Tomblin recalled. In those days, he spent most of his time in Chapmanville, only coming to Charleston for the legislative session.
“Interims were very limited then,” Tomblin said.
Outgoing state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, who served with Tomblin in the House and Senate, said politics were a lot different in those days.
So different, when Burdette was asked to relate some of the stories from his and Tomblin’s earlier years in politics, his response was, “I can’t tell them.”
“I met him in 1979, when I was elected to the House,” Burdette said. “The next year he moved to the Senate, and I moved to the Senate two years later.
“I’ve known him for 35 years,” Burdette added. “It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this as long as we’ve been doing it.”
Tomblin said he spent his first couple of years in the Legislature observing and learning the ropes. But fellow lawmakers saw promise in the fledgling legislator, and Tomblin would begin a string of increasingly important committee appointments.
In 1980, Tomblin was elected to the Senate. By 1987, he had been appointed as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a position he held for the next eight years.
It was in finance that Tomblin’s affinity for numbers and working out budgets was honed.
“Having my fingers involved in the budget is the thing I’ve done the most in my career,” he said.
“In 1988, things were real bad,” Tomblin recalled. “We couldn’t pay our bills. We couldn’t pay tax refunds. They even came to cut the gas off at the Governor’s Mansion.”
It would take Gaston Caperton, a Democratic businessman with no political experience, to turn the state’s fortunes around. In a contentious 1989 special legislative session, Caperton pushed through massive tax increases that, though unpopular, would be the state’s financial salvation.
The lessons were not lost on Tomblin, who set about trying to shore up the state’s pension funds and would eventually lead to the state rainy day fund, a pool of emergency money that has been used to bail the state out of massive deficits the past several years.
In 1995, Tomblin was elected Senate president, arguably the most important position in state government next to the governor himself. He would hold the position until appointed as governor-elect, a replacement for Gov. Joe Manchin, who resigned after being elected to the United States Senate in 2010.
Rick Winnell, who served as assistant clerk to the state Senate from 1974 through 2011, recalls Tomblin’s years as Senate president as even-handed and fair.
While Senate presidents had traditionally handed out committee appointments to favorites and friends, Winnell said Tomblin insisted that a certain percentage of Republicans — then the minority party — be appointed to each and every committee. Tomblin even insisted Winnell check his math to make sure the percentages were met, and committee appointments were kept in strict secrecy.
“Earl Ray liked to play his cards very close to his chest, right up to the last minute, then he’d allow us to release the information,” Winnell said. “I couldn’t even tell my parents who was going to be finance chairman or whatever.”
Burdette and Winnell also recall Tomblin as calm in a crisis and even-keeled.
“He’s very patient, when most of the people around him aren’t so patient,” Burdette said. “He’s very careful about the way he makes decisions.”
“I’ve only seen him upset a couple of times,” Winnell said. “When he gets upset, you know it. He gets right in your face, and that finger goes almost in your nose.”
Tomblin also had his quirks, they said.
“He’s a super ‘Jeopardy’ fan,” Winnell said. “The guy can answer almost every question.
Winnell said Tomblin had a television set in one of the committee rooms, and all work ceased when it was time for “Jeopardy.”
Burdette said Tomblin’s favorite beverage — Bacardi rum and Diet Coke with no fruit — is also well known.
“There’s not a bar anywhere that doesn’t know what he drinks,” Burdette said. “I think he’s drunk that same thing for 30 years.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Burdette added. “You can always tell, when he tells a story he thinks is funny, because he starts laughing before he even starts it.”
The Tomblin Legacy
“He has navigated through so many challenges, not only that he did not control, but that weren’t created by him,” Burdette said.
Tomblin said he’s proud of his work with the budget.
“The way I grew up, if you get a service or product, you pay your bills,” he said. “You don’t waste money.”
He’s also proud of his work to fight the state’s substance abuse problem and work to try to improve the state’s school system.
“When I came in, we had one of the highest dropout rates in the country,” he said. “The last five years, our scores have gone up dramatically.”
In 2013, Tomblin set up the Workforce Planning Council, a task force of educators designed to integrate all types of education agencies in the state to create skilled graduates.
Tomblin spokeswoman Jessica Tice also said the state has seen more than $25.5 billion in new investment under Tomblin’s leadership and welcomed more than 250 companies, providing West Virginians with more than 11,000 good-paying jobs. High on the list is a Procter & Gamble manufacturing facility on its way to completion in Martinsburg.
But it might be the Rock Creek Development Park, a 12,000-acre industrial park being developed on the site of the former Hobet mine operation in Boone County, that will be Tomblin’s most concrete accomplishment.
“I’d looked at that property for years,” Tomblin said. “When you get up on that mountain and look at all that flat land in southern West Virginia, it’s almost to hard to believe.”
The West Virginia National Guard has agreed to be the first tenant on the property, which Tomblin said has three-phase electricity, natural gas and other utilities available. The property is about 30 minutes from Charleston and could draw on a potential workforce of 400,000 people within a 20-mile radius, Tomblin said.
“What I’m trying to do is diversify the economy of southern West Virginia,” Tomblin said.
Capito agrees the project can be a huge shot in the arm for West Virginia’s economy.
“It’s a big vision, and it’s a vision for the future,” she said. “With it comes risk, and you don’t know where it’s going to end up.”
But, she said, “I think his Hobet project is trying to bring some of that economic development to the southern part of the state.”
Burdette thinks Tomblin ultimately will be remembered for his responsible approach to the state budget and his quest to improve the lives of the people of West Virginia.
“It’s the difference between a show horse and a workhorse,” Burdette said. “Earl Ray Tomblin is a workhorse.”