This op-ed proves once and for all that I CAN say nice things about politicians. It's just that I rarely have the opportunity. Plus, trolls need fed too.
I always liked the part in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer where Tom and his friends Huck and Joe listen to their own funeral after they were presumed to have drowned in the Mississippi. I’m guessing a lot of people might like to do that, especially since it may be the only time anyone says something nice about us in public.
I’ve joked with my friend and fellow columnist Pastor Matthew Watts that I’d like him to preach my funeral, preferably when I’m alive and able to enjoy it. Funeral orations are kind of wasted on the dead.
It’s too bad we often don’t say positive things while people are still among us. In that spirit, I’m going to give a shoutout to outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who’s still kicking. Here’s the punchline: without making a show of it, I think he’s done more to help disadvantaged people than any governor in my lifetime. Or several of them combined.
(Disclosure: I’ve only met him in person a time or two and doubt he could pick me out of a police lineup.)
I recall when he was installed as governor in 2010 after the political earthquake that followed the death of Sen. Byrd in June of that year. I didn’t go, but my friend the Rev. Dennis Sparks, then director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, offered the benediction.
His text was Psalm 72, possibly written about the coronation of Solomon. It says in part, “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people and give deliverance to the needy…”
I wished the new governor well, but didn’t expect any of that to actually happen. From observing him at a distance in the state Senate, he seemed to be cautious and conservative, although he took the lead in building up the Rainy Day Fund, which has helped West Virginia avoid disastrous cuts lately.
I expected a sort of caretaker administration where little would change.
I was wrong.
In 2011, he expanded eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The Legislature passed legislation to that effect in 2006, but it had never been implemented. We’re a national leader in insuring children. For now.
In 2013, after an actuarial study, he decided to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Since a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, that was a state option rather than a federal mandate. At the time it was estimated that this might eventually cover around 90,000 working West Virginians.
Nobody — least of all me — guessed that just a few years later it would cover nearly twice that number, or that on his watch, DHHR would do such an amazing job at getting people signed up. Despite hard times, West Virginia is a national leader in reducing the number of uninsured people.
I’ve talked to working people who benefited from this, and I know it has changed and saved lives. It’s also helping people struggling with addiction find their way out. And supported jobs in health care.
All that may be undone by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, including our delegation, but Tomblin did what he could when he could, and it was good.
We’re also a national leader in early childhood education with universal access to voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, thanks in part to legislation proposed by the governor in 2014. Other early childhood programs have also expanded and probably would have done more if times had been better.
He also took on problems that others didn’t. People knew for years that we were locking up too many people for trivial offenses at high cost and with no benefit to the public, even as the population dropped and the crime rate remained stable. Tomblin took the lead in creating a state task force and bringing in the Justice Center to study the issue and recommend legislation aimed at safely reducing the prison population.
It passed in 2013, although some provisions were weakened in the Legislature. It hasn’t fully gone into effect yet, but so far it has improved practices and started to slow down the rate of increase.
The next year, he did something similar with juvenile justice, where again West Virginia was heading in the wrong direction fast. Juvenile justice and truancy reform legislation passed in 2015, when the Legislature was under Republican control.
When the Democratic Legislature increased the minimum wage by $1.50 per hour over two years in 2014, Tomblin came under intense pressure from business groups to veto the increase. Although he probably would have preferred a smaller increase, he resisted the pressure. As a result over 100,000 low-income West Virginians (not mostly burger flipping teens by the way) got a significant boost in income.
He also hasn’t been afraid to veto bills he believed to be unconstitutional or contrary to public safety or harmful to working people (like “right to work” and prevailing wage repeal), even though these have sometimes been overridden. And he proposed revenue measures that, if enacted would have spared the state further cuts.
His administration also responded to public concerns over funding for child care and proposed cuts in programs for children and families. There was some jangling and back and forth, but the issues were eventually resolved without bitterness and rancor.
He’s one of those rare politicians who seems more interested in getting things done than in being seen doing things. He didn’t need to be the only person in the room with ideas. And he governed at a difficult time when major industries collapsed, revenue tanked, and the Legislature flipped for the first time in 82 years.
I haven’t always agreed with the administration’s policies, but the record speaks for itself.
I wish Gov. Tomblin the best in his future endeavors. I’m glad I was wrong about him.