CHARLESTON - Control of West Virginia's House of Delegates hangs in the balance after intense jockeying by two Democratic candidates for speaker, with business and labor groups weighing in and the large Republican minority hoping to stage a coup.
Judiciary Chair Tim Miley and Finance Chair Harry Keith White emerged as the leading Democratic contenders last month. Miley, a Harrison County lawyer, has amassed on-the-record pledges from around 37 of the party's 54 delegates - including at least one defecting White supporter.
A Mingo County banker, White believes the tally may change once Democrats meet behind closed doors to nominate a candidate. That's slated for June 18, as Speaker Rick Thompson will step down to head the state Department of Veterans' Assistance once Secretary Keith Gwinn retires June 15 because of health issues.
Miley and White met late last week to discuss their race.
"I'm not saying that there's any resolution, but that further discussion might be warranted," White, 67, said afterward. "I consider Tim my friend and I hope he considers me his friend. I would say it was pretty positive. We both know where the party needs to be and what needs to happen. It's just a matter of how we get there."
The outcome not only will decide who presides over the 100-delegate House this year and next, influencing the fortunes of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's agenda in the process, but also will set the stage for the 2014 elections.
Republicans netted 11 seats in 2012, gaining their largest share of the House in decades. The state GOP is gearing up to erase the Democrats' majority next year, when all 100 House seats are up for new two-year terms.
Republicans aren't ruling out capturing the speakership this year, by luring a handful of Democrats to their side when the full House votes on the parties' nominees. But Miley cited how the GOP had similar hopes before Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat, was re-elected to a fourth term as speaker this year.
"If it didn't happen in January, why would it happen now?" Miley, 47, said. "I would like to think that the Democratic nominee for speaker will be the nominee behind whom all Democrats will unite, whether it's Harry Keith White or Tim Miley."
As Thompson an-nounced his plan to join Tomblin's Cabinet in mid-May, the House's slim Democratic majority faces a shrinking window to unite before the governor convenes the House to choose Thompson's successor. Miley and White each expressed concern about rallying their party in time, as did Delegate Doug Skaff, a Kanawha County Democrat who initially emerged as a possible candidate but soon endorsed White.
"From a Democratic standpoint, they'd like to resolve this issue so the Democrats can go forward with a united front," Skaff said.
Skaff, who intends to run for the seat of retiring state Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, next year, has also sought to speak for younger delegates amid the Democratic race for speaker.
"Those new voices deserve a seat at the table," said Skaff, a 36-year-old business owner. "I've been out in the open for Harry Keith White. ... He thought we needed a good combination of stability (and) new voices. Tim Miley's camp was more about maintaining the status quo."
Stressing that he has no issue with Miley, Skaff said that what has disturbed some fellow delegates has been "outside organizations weighing in on what should be an internal matter." Both labor unions and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce have sought to influence the race. The Chamber, which praised Tomblin's planned appointment of the 60-year-old Thompson, has targeted several of Miley's supporters in news releases. These attacks have cast these supporters, as well as Miley, as the House's most liberal members. They also seek to link them to President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in the state.
Miley rejects the attempt to label him.
"No one has ever accused me of being anything except moderate or moderate-to-conservative," Miley said. He added, "These groups have a right to express their opinion. My only desire is that communications sent out are honest and forthright, and not hyperbole and fear-mongering."
The state AFL-CIO, which includes a number of affiliated unions, and the West Virginia Education Association endorsed Miley in late May. But that backing had White questioning whether labor groups were browbeating delegates into supporting Miley.
"They've never seen labor jump in like this, with such a full-court press," White said before his meeting with Miley, recounting comments from other delegates. "I've got a decent voting record with labor, but I also think I'm known for keeping it in the middle of the road."
Once Thompson res-igns from his House seat for the executive branch post, a Democratic committee will recommend names to Tomblin. The governor will then ap-point a new delegate for that Wayne County seat until the 2014 elections.