By Peggy Mackenzie
The annual Greenbrier County Democratic Executive Committee’s rally and dinner, held at the Elks Country Club on May 15, brought out all the local Democratic dignitaries, such that nearly half of those attending were office holders ranging from executive committee members, mayors, county commissioners, state senators, the state-wide Democratic leader, right up to a stand-in representative for Hillary Clinton.
On the slate was a tribute to the 2014 Democrat of the Year, James “Jimmy” Johnson. Usually, the feted Dem is treated to a rousing roast, but this year, with the recent passing of Johnson in March, a heartfelt remembrance of his deeds and and outstanding qualities was delivered by Diann Hayes. Her eloquent remarks struck a resonating chord for all attending, including Johnson’s son, Tom, and daughter, Barbara Sanders, present with their respective spouses.
“He was a model to many,” Hayes said. Johnson had served for 32-year as the Greenbrier County 4-H extension agent, whose commitment to young people was demonstrated over and over through the years by serving as a role model and mentor. Johnson, she said, was instrumental in the development of the Greenbrier County Youth Camp, and in 2013, at age 88, he published the book, “The History of 4-H in Greenbrier County, WV – 1908-2008.” Jimmy Johnson was given the “Spirit of the Oak” award by Alderson Schools for outstanding contributions by a citizen of Alderson. He was inducted into the West Virginia 4-H Hall of Fame and the West Virginia Agriculture & Forestry Hall of Fame, both in 2003. And, true to his principles, he attributed his accolades to his many colleagues, volunteers, friends and family.
From there on out, the speakers began to politick heavily.
In a pointed and humorous burlesque, called “Paul’s Unauthorized Democratic Party Survival Coloring Book,” Paul Detch’s hilariously transparent pitch for robust, progressive democratic leadership in the party had the crowd in stitches. The hand-drawn sketches of donkeys and elephants, projected on a screen, graphically depicted the differences between Republicans and Democrats. The satirical sendups of recognizable political figures in compromising circumstances brought gales of laughter, even when the story did not reflect well for the Dems, which Detch defined as “the party without a purpose.”
Finally, as the theme song to Mighty Mouse rose to a crescendo, Detch quickly tore off his coat and tie, and then unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the telltale blue Superman T-shirt with the letters PD (Progressive Democrat) in place of the familiar big red S. This pantomime was a well-met attempt to rally the Democrats behind a more energized, progressive platform for the party.
Chairman Paul Moya rushed to the mic and made a quick disclaimer, stating that Detch’s speech was his opinion and his alone, and did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Dem party or the executive committee. But, as the evening progressed, the rhetoric did pick up steam. Speaker after speaker accused the Republicans of maintaining close connections to corporate money while voting against the concerns and needs of the populace.
Both Senator Bill Laird and Senator Jeff Kessler, the special guest speaker for the evening, blasted the actions of the now Republican-controlled Legislature in Charleston.
Kessler said, incredulously,”This Legislature was the most bizarre and outlandish thing I’d ever seen in my life. They put gay and anti-gay legislation in everything from charter schools to common core -just crazy stuff. That’s what they stood for.”
In the running for West Virginia Governor and in gearing up for the race, Kessler introduced himself as “the real Democratic candidate for governor,” and said he has always been, and always will be, a democrat. Kessler, 59, has been a member of the state Senate since November, 1997, when he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Larry Wiedebusch’s death. He was elected to fill out the remainder of the unexpired term in 1998 and re-elected to full four-year terms in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
He served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to his appointment as acting Senate president in January 2011. He was sworn into the position permanently in November of that year after Tomblin’s inauguration as governor.
Although he lost that position last year after Republicans assumed leadership of the Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years, the members of his party tapped him to serve as minority leader.
“We need to create real wealth and real opportunity” here in West Virginia, Kessler said. “So when the gas or the coal is gone, we’re not left high and dry and without a future.”
Kessler said the coal industry is pretty much exhausted in southern West Virginia.
“If we had put just 1 percent of the state’s severance fees into a fund back in the 70s, we’d be sitting on $8 billion today,” he said. “But coal is not coming back.”
Instead, Kessler stated that he expects hydraulic fracturing for natural gas to boom in West Virginia in the coming years, and he would like to capture the revenue that boom may bring to the state, placing it in a fund for the future, of which Kessler is the primary proponent. The fund would collect a portion of the anticipated increase in severance fees charged to fuel companies into savings for the state. Kessler spearheaded a trip to North Dakota to learn about their North Dakota Legacy Fund, and began crafting his own proposal for a West Virginia Future Fund upon his return.
“There are things we can do,” he said.