Departing lawmakers taking experience away from Legislature

West Virginia Senator Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, looks on as Sen Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, speaks during the opening day of the state legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — There was a time when even Roman Prezioso, one of West Virginia’s most tenured legislators, couldn’t get anyone from the Marion County Democratic Executive Committee to take his calls.

Granted, that was some 32 years ago when, after an argument with his sister, Marie, he decided to run for state office for the first time.

“About the fourth time I called the person, they hung up on me,” Prezioso said March 7, the last day of the 2020 legislative session. “I was getting discouraged, and so (my sister) would call and she said, ‘Well, how are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m not doing too good. Nobody’s answering the phone.’ She said, ‘Start at the top again and go down.’

“That’s how I got down here.”

Prezioso, who went on to serve eight years in the House of Delegates and 24 in the Senate, addressed the Senate for the last time just before 9 p.m. Saturday.

Prezioso is among 24 members of the 134-member Legislature who won’t return to their current post next year, either because they are running for another office or because they aren’t seeking re-election to any office.

In the Senate, four senators aren’t seeking re-election to their current office or vying for different office: Prezioso; Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha; Kenny Mann, R-Monroe; and Paul Hardesty, D-Logan.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the 2020 election cycle, but his current Senate term isn’t up until 2022. He will be able to maintain his seat while pursuing the governor’s office.

The Senate approved resolutions honoring the tenure of each man Saturday night, starting with Prezioso, the most tenured, and ending with Hardesty. Gov. Jim Justice appointed Hardesty to the Senate in January 2019.

Prezioso and Palumbo are notable among those departures for their tenure in the Legislature, and Palumbo for being a second-generation lawmaker. His father, Mario Palumbo, served five consecutive terms in the Senate.

Prezioso’s essential retirement from the Senate was met with a lot of tears Saturday night, with other senators praising Prezioso’s patience, flexibility and willingness to teach other lawmakers the ropes and sincerely consider their perspectives on important decisions.

Even Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, left his podium to poke Prezioso and commend him for his service.

“I know that Roman Prezioso hates what we’re doing for him right now,” Carmichael said. “He does, and that says a lot about him. That really does say a lot about him because he’s humble. He wants to be a public servant, and he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, but we owe him this attention tonight. The state of West Virginia owes him this attention tonight.”

Prezioso thanked his colleagues for their kind words. He said for all that he may have taught other legislators, it was the legislative staff who taught him the most while he was in office.

“You know, you just don’t come down here and be a legislator by the fact that you got elected,” Prezioso said. “You gotta learn from people, and I learned from a lot of good people in the House, and I continue to learn today. That process goes on and on. It never ends.”

Corey Palumbo was first elected to the House in 2002, then to the Senate in 2008.

Senators told Palumbo they trusted his judgment and tact, with Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, saying that if Palumbo disagreed with him on an issue, he would go back and review the matter just to be sure it was the right course of action.

Palumbo didn’t entirely rule out seeking public office in the future, but he said Saturday he was glad to get to spend more time with his family. He noted his daughter is about 18 years old, exactly the same amount of time he’s been in the Legislature.

“I know that we don’t always agree on issues, and that’s fine,” Palumbo said. “I never question that everyone here is doing what they think is right for the state of West Virginia, and I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for everyone who serves in this body. I really do.”

A full one-fifth of the members of the House won’t return to their respective seats next year, totaling about 180 years of combined experience leaving the chamber.

Five delegates are running for the Senate, including longtime delegate and House Minority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion.

Caputo has served 24 consecutive years in the House. He is running for Prezioso’s Senate seat.

During his farewell speech, Caputo said he never dreamed when he was younger that a coal miner from Rivesville with a high school diploma could have come as far as he had.

He referred to an incident during the 2019 legislative session in which he faced repercussions for kicking open a door to the House chamber during the opening of that day’s session, causing minor injuries to two other people.

He thanked the people in the House who stood by him and forgave him for his actions.

“I guess the sign of a man, the way I grew up, is you own it. You apologize for it and you try to pick up your life and you try to move on,” Caputo said. “That’s what I tried to do, and I want to thank the 98 members of this body who forgave me for that, and I hope I earned everybody’s respect back. That was my goal, my intention.”

Sitting next to Caputo, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, also was among those who addressed the House for the last time Saturday.

Miley, who served as Speaker of the House from 2013 to 2015, was granted use of the Speaker’s podium to give his speech in a symbolic gesture from current House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.

Miley, through tears, said he was blessed and highly favored to serve in the Legislature for 16 years, but needed the separation from the political life.

“This will always be a part of my life,” Miley said. “It’s always going to be part of your lives as well, no matter how long you served here. I will always be part of its history, as you will be.”

After the clock struck midnight, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, was the last delegate to bid farewell to the House, saying he and his wife wanted to spend more time with their children and grandchildren, none of whom live in West Virginia.

“Tech is great. Skype is great. But you can’t hug a grandchild over Skype, Facebook and instant messaging,” Shott said. “All that stuff is great, but snuggling up with those kids and reading a story is something you can’t duplicate electronically.”

Shott was elected to the House in 2008 and was appointed to the Senate in 2010. He was elected back to the House in 2012.

On Saturday, he told colleagues he hoped his time in the Legislature had done some good and hopefully brought some West Virginians back home, even if his family was elsewhere.

“I appreciate the effort you put into making my experience here so satisfying,” Shott said. “I hope the sun shines on you every day from here on out.”