Senator Kessler Reflects on Defeat and W.Va.'s Future
As the poll results came in the evening of Election Day, it was clear Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler would not take the Democratic nomination for governor.
But losing the race doesn't just mean Kessler won't be moving into the governor’s mansion in January, it means the end of his legislative career, at least for now. Kessler sat down with West Virginia Public Broadcasting to discuss his legacy after nearly two decades in the statehouse. These are some of the thoughts he shared.
About the Campaign Trail
It was a grassroots campaign. I was way under-funded. I spent maybe $250,000. I know some of that was money I carried over from old campaigns; I fundraised myself maybe $100,000. Obviously Mr. Justice spent $2.5 million and he won. I’m comforted by the fact that in the areas that know me best, I won.
I gave it my best shot. The message I was espousing is the truth - if you think whoever is going to take office and not raise some taxes, you’re fooling yourself. My message: investing in people, education, substance abuse programs, and infrastructure - roads, highways, and most particularly broadband? That’s our path forward. Whoever is going to be in that governor’s office, if we are going to move ourselves forward, that’s really what we’re going to have to do.
In Good Hands? Justice v. Cole
I don’t know. I’m concerned.
I’ve seen Senator Cole and while I like Bill personally, I think [republicans] are taking us down the wrong path. I’ve seen the radical republican agenda they’ve been running, whether it’s raw milk or RFRA … and it appears to be based not so much in sound public policy, but in an attempt to consolidate political power.
I haven’t heard anything out of Mr. Justice that would cause me to believe that he truly believes in a lot of the Democratic ideals and values. He’s been very silent during the campaign. I know he’s been a recent convert to the party, having switched to being the Democratic Party back in February of 2015 - then in May filed pre-candidacy to be the governor. I’ve yet to hear a lot of specifics out of him that would lead me to believe he’s going to have a progressive and inclusive agenda that will really attack the issues and double down on the things we need to do.
On the Budget
I predict they’re going to do exactly what I’ve been telling them they’re going to HAVE to do: we have to raise some taxes. Governor Tomblin is now going to advance several revenue enhancement measures. Cigarette tax, probably a consumers’ sales tax, possibly a gasoline tax, a cell phone tax - you’re going to see a cafeteria menu of new tax measures. And we’re going to have to pass at least some of them to raise a couple hundred million dollars, or we’re not going to balance the budget.
We’ve cut 20-25 percent of the budget in the last three or four years. There’s no fat left. You are now going to be cutting into programs that truly will hurt our people: free health clinics, state police barracks, libraries. And cutting funding to education is so counter-productive? I don’t think the senate Democrats will go along with it. I can assure you I’ll rant and rail against it.
Winning the War on Coal
You’ve got to be honest with people and show them a path forward. We need to invest in our people to build our workforce. The biggest challenge we have in our state is we have a low workforce participation rate which means we have so few of our people working. Why? Because they don’t have the skill sets or education to do the jobs that the world is moving into. Research and development, healthcare, things of that nature.
We have to redefine ourselves as a state. We’ve been a coal-dependent economy for 100 years. I tell folks when I walk in a room: “What’s been the most dominant industry in the history of the state?”
"Why are we diverting so much energy into winning a war that, even if you win, you're still last!?" Kessler asked. "It's nonsense."
They’ll say, “COAL!”
I’ll say, “Well is there a war on coal?”
They’ll say, “HELL YEAH!”
"Well let me ask you a question: During coal’s heyday was West Virginia’s economy in the top five, middle five, or bottom five, nationally?"
They’ll scratch their head and say, “Probably the bottom five.”
Why are we diverting so much energy into winning a war that, even if you win, you’re still last!? It’s nonsense.
We need to redefine ourselves like they have in Pittsburgh where they lost their steel industry and became a research and commerce center, an education Mecca for higher education. We’ve got WVU, Marshall, West Liberty, Wheeling Jesuit, we’re right next to Carnegie Mellon, we’ve got the research corridor in north central West Virginia, we’ve got a growing Eastern Panhandle. And yet to continue to pound the drum that we’ve got to have pick and shovel coal mining in order to bring our economy back is just a terrible fallacy.
Lessons from the North for the South
We went through the steel mill shut down and contraction and that's why I've told the folks in the southern coal fields: Don't tell me I haven't seen it before. When I first went to the senate in 1997 the leading employer in the state was Weirton Steel. Second was Wheeling Steel. There were 27,000 people working.
And we were going to SAVE the steel industry, by golly. We marched on Washington and had all the politicians on a stage caravans and buses... and guess what? Wheeling Steel doens't exist anymore and Weirton Steel has about 700 people there. We couldn't stop it.
Same with Pittsburgh! It was a steel town. You know how many steel mills it has today? Zero. But look at their sky line. It's all commerce and banking and industry and research and education. Those are the kinds of things we can do.
What’s Next for Jeff Kessler
I’ve been in this legislature for 20 years. You can burn out on doing it. I’ve done everything I can do in that venue. I’ve appreciated my opportunity to serve the people of the state but it was time for me to move up or go home. I’ve got five kids, three of them are at the ages of 10, 7, and 2. I’ve decided that being gone two and three months a year at the legislature living out of a hotel room it just wasn’t fair to them anymore.
I decided we’re going to live under the same roof somewhere. At the end of the day I’ll return to my practice of law, probably make more money, and get to spend more time with my family and wife. Not a bad fall back!
I love my state. I’ve given it my all and laid it all on the field and we lost. I’m a big sports fan. Sometimes the best team and the best player doesn't always win.
It’s been an honor and I’ll continue to help in any way I can to help move my state forward. I do love my state. I truly do. I only want what’s best for it.