With the 2024 Legislative Session looming, is there hope for unity among state lawmakers?

By Matthew Young, RealWV

With just hours now remaining until the start of West Virginia’s 2024 Legislative Session, lawmakers, lobbyists, pundits, and proliferators are descending upon the capital city in rapid succession. 

Unofficially, the legislative season began on Friday with the WV Press Association’s annual “Legislative Lookahead.” Historically, this is the day when leadership from both parties within the House of Delegates and State Senate come together to renew their shared commitment to the pursuit of bipartisanship. This year saw that commitment once again reaffirmed by Republican Senate President Craig Blair, and affirmed for the first time by newly-elected Democratic House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle. Beyond those initial affirmations, however, partisan ideology was on full display.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley

Blair, who also serves as West Virginia’s Lt. Governor, is entering his 22nd year in the state’s legislature. In spite of his professtations of bipartisanship, Blair has publicly stated that his desire is for all 34 State Senate seats to be filled by Republicans. 

Currently, 31 of West Virginia’s 34 senators are Republican, and Democrat Mike Caputo has already announced his intention to retire at the end of his current term. However, while Blair’s desires seem to be playing out in the Senate Chamber, the reality is far from a conservative utopia. 

The creation of a Republican supermajority has brought with it several unintended side effects. Infighting, power struggles, and abundant use of the term “RINO” have increasingly divided the party. 

On Thursday, Robert Karnes, a Republican Senator from Randolph County, released an op-ed titled “Bribery, Intimidation and Swamp Building, Oh My!” In it, Karnes repeatedly accuses Blair of intimidation and corruption, even going so far as to accuse the Senate President of alcohol dependency.

“People who know Craig Blair aren’t surprised to find his end of the day priority is going to the bar,” Karnes wrote. 

The dislike between Blair and Karnes has been well-documented, and was on display for all the world to see when it erupted into a significant legislative-embarrassment during the 2023 session. A public spat between the two resulted in Blair ordering that Karnes be removed from the Senate Chamber. However, Karnes’ op-ed does not stop with Blair; his words also reduce Republican Senators Ryan Weld and Tom Takubo to little more than Blair’s lackeys, and Eric Tarr to the playground bully. This type of back-stabbing, middle school politics leaves the state’s Republican lawmakers looking less like the Grand Old Party, and more like the Tea Party. Beyond that, it raises the question: If Republicans can’t work with each other, how can they possibly work with Democrats?

As part of his remarks on Friday, Blair told reporters that in order to attract businesses to the state, West Virginia must have “an educated, drug-free workforce.” While his statement, on the surface, seems logical, the way in which Blair hopes to accomplish this is certain to be met with mixed reactions.

“I want to see capital punishment for the illicit manufacturing, and the wholesale distribution of fentanyl,” Blair said, adding that he will be personally sponsoring the bill.

Although West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965, rumors began to swirl prior to the start of the 2023 Legislative Session, indicating that debate surrounding state-sanctioned executions may make a return. A bill, drafted in 2023 by Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, was even introduced in the House, but it was not taken up in committee. 

“Do I think anybody will ever be put to death in the State of West Virginia? I doubt it,” Blair said. “But what we’re wanting to do is send the message out to these animals that are selling this and manufacturing this – stay the hell out of West Virginia!”

With so many of the State’s Republican legislators largely funded by pro-life supporters, it will be interesting to see which of them support Blair’s death penalty proposal. And with Democrats fundamentally opposed to capital punishment, the bill is certain to create further division amongst voters.

House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell

In what will be his first session as Minority Leader, Hornbuckle succeeds former Democratic-politician-turned-Republican-candidate Doug Skaff in the role. And despite referring to his members as “the best Democratic team in America,” they only control 10% of the vote in the state’s House of Delegates.  

Hornbuckle began his remarks to reporters by praising both the leadership of, and dedication to, the cause of bipartisanship on the part of Blair, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. 

“We have slung so much mud,” Hornbuckle said. “There’s so much rhetoric, and it’s counterproductive to West Virginians moving forward. What they set out to do is show that you can do it together – we have to do it together because everybody is involved.”

Just seconds later, however, Hornbuckle’s message of bipartisan-unity became somewhat mixed. He referred to the need for House Democrats to be “the champions of the people.” And while having just railed against the rhetoric and the slinging of mud, Hornbuckle slung some of his own. 

“Democrats have always been the adults in the room,” Hornbuckle noted. “We’ve been the watchdog.”

From there, Hornbuckle’s message became even more confusing, adding, “We’re going to lead by working in bipartisan areas. That’s very important to us – it’s very, very important to us. But what we will also do is stand up to extremism.”

Mixed as it may be, much of Hornbuckle’s message does ring true, as there has been a tremendous amount of political mudslinging. Although simply acknowledging a problem you are complicit in creating does not free one of their culpability for participating. And while Hornbuckle is correct in his assertion that “working in bipartisan areas” must be a priority for Democrats, with occupying only 10 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, Democrats have no other option. 

Whether you agree with Hornbuckle’s belief that Democrats are “the adults in the room” or not, one fact is undeniable; with Republicans controlling 90% of the State’s Legislature, much as an adult would with a petulant child, Democrats can do little more than cast a disapproving glare at the actions of their Republican colleagues. 

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