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Gov. Bob Wise

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Governor Bob Wise

Gov. Bob Wise sounds off on education, economic development, Marshall University, the regional airport and the high and low points of his first months on the job.

The church bells in Charleston were still ringing the chimes of midnight when Huntington Judge Dan O’Hanlon looked Governor-elect Bob Wise squarely in the eyes.

"Please place your left hand on the Bible, raise your right hand and repeat after me: ‘I, Bob Wise, do solemnly swear….’" It was January 15th and in front of a small group of family and friends, Bob Wise was being sworn in as the 33rd governor of the State of West Virginia. The journey to the Governor’s office had been long for Wise and his family. His wife, Sandy, held the Bible while he took the oath. His son, Robert, 13, and his daughter, Alexandra, 11, were home asleep, resting up for the public inauguration later that day.

Born Robert Eugene Wise, Jr., on January 6, 1948, "Bob" grew up with his parents and two sisters in the Kanawha Valley. His father worked for McDonough Caperton Insurance Group for 30 years. As a high schooler, Wise ran track, excelling at the mile and half-mile. It was then that he started an unbroken string of political successes, being elected as student body vice president. He has never lost an election since. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the people he has run against. He began his political career by defeating State Senate President Bill Brotherton. Next, he defeated an incumbent republican congressman in 1982 to begin an 18-year stint in the U.S. House of Representatives. Finally, he left that secure congressional seat to challenge a popular incumbent governor.

Several weeks after swearing in the state’s rookie governor, Huntington Quarterly contributing writer Dan O’Hanlon sat down with Wise for his first in-depth interview. The energetic Wise was eager to get the ball rolling.

HQ: Happy belated birthday Governor.

WISE: Thank you. I just turned 53.

HQ: Tell us about growing up in West Virginia.

WISE: I grew up in Charleston and went to public schools in Kanawha County. I then earned my undergraduate degree from Duke University and later acquired a law degree from Tulane. I then moved back to Charleston to live and practice law.

HQ: What are your first memories of Huntington?

WISE: My first memory of Huntington is one of the most precious ones I have. My father and I, for an early birthday treat, rode on a train that had an engine in the front and the back. He took me to Huntington and we stayed at the Hotel Prichard one night and went to a movie. We then got back on the train and returned to Charleston.

HQ: That’s a wonderful story. What are your memories of Marshall University?

WISE: Well, I first became aware of Marshall when I was growing up and following the Thundering Herd in the sports pages. As I got older, many of my friends who were making college decisions chose to attend Marshall. Most recently, I recall the many times I have come back to Huntington to participate in a variety of Marshall activities. I have been a guest lecturer at the university. Dr. Choi had me on campus at least once after I had finished law school. So, I’ve been more involved with Marshall University since moving back to West Virginia in 1975

Governor Bob Wise

HQ: What have been the high and low points since taking over as Governor?

WISE: The high point thus far has been how much everybody wants to help join in and move West Virginia forward. The people of this state are willing to say, "We’ve got to work together to make this state what we want it to be." Even people who did not support me in the campaign have stepped up and offered their support. And that’s great because that’s what democracy is all about.

The low point was getting into office, looking over the books, and finding what bad shape the state budget is in. Despite that, I see incredible opportunity. I’ve met, at least twice, and talked a number of times with President Angel at Marshall University. The resources that Marshall University possesses can benefit the entire state. And I see so much potential in the Huntington area.

So, what’s been really the bright spots are the people like President Angel and others coming forward and saying, "We want to work together, we want to contribute. Whatever resources we can provide, we’ll do it." And my main objective is to coordinate and work with people to put together a strategic plan.

The low point is the fact that the state budget is in bad shape. It’s very hard to find the resources to make progress, to make the kind of investments that move us forward. But we’re going to find them. We have no choice.

HQ: By the time this article reaches publication in the Huntington Quarterly, the legislative session will be over. What are your goals for the legislative session and what would you consider a success?

WISE: The success will be in getting much of our legislative agenda passed which includes the PROMISE scholarship program. This program promises a scholarship (to a West Virginia institution of higher education) to any high school student who works hard, plays by the rules, and is a qualified student. That’s one of the highest goals for the legislative session. I think PROMISE is important because it’s based on achievement. And we need to send a message to every young person and their parents that there is a reward for hard work. I also think the PROMISE scholarship is an important economic development tool because it keeps West Virginia students, the hardest working students, in West Virginia. And, as Governor, I will fight for increased funding for needs-based scholarships for students below a certain income level.

Also in education, I’m interested in the implementation of Senate Bill 653. The Legislature has already passed the bill and Governor Underwood has signed it. This new law will help us move towards a community college system. It will also provide clear standards by which our universities and colleges can measure their quality and success. I have been very impressed at Marshall’s response to these issues. Hopefully, implementing this bill will be one of the hallmarks of this legislative session.

Additionally, in terms of legislative accomplishments, I’m presenting an aggressive package for economic development. Much of it comes from working with the West Virginia Development Office and Development Council, which is essentially composed of business and community leaders across the state. Getting passage of that would enhance our ability to build businesses in West Virginia and to help them grow.

In health care, I want to make sure that we achieve full outreach in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIPS), whereby every family making less than $34,000 a year is eligible for health insurance for their children.

HQ: In 1981 The Herald Dispatch called you the only full-time tax reformer elected to the legislature. Is that still an interest of yours and is tax reform something that you are going to be pursuing?

WISE: Tax reform won’t be on the agenda much this year. It’s something I would like to look at in future years because we clearly have to move our tax system to recognize new types of industries that are being created — and ones we want to create — in West Virginia. I look at Huntington, for instance, with the development of some of its technology-based industries, as the wave of the future. And certainly we need a community that is a major city, with the resources in terms of transportation, people and a major university, like Huntington, to be a strong growth center. And not just to create any jobs, but to create the kind of high paying, technology-based jobs that are so much a part of the new economy we’re moving into.

HQ: During your successful campaign for Governor you indicated a desire to see Marshall University assume an even greater role in economic development in West Virginia. Marshall University President Dan Angel has stated that his primary goal is to move the university forward to achieve national prominence. The university is already a leader in technology, rural health care, and other areas. What path do you see the university taking in the next decade to achieve those goals?

WISE: I think Marshall University will play a critical role in the rebirth of Southern West Virginia. We still have in Southern West Virginia strong communities, but unfortunately, we have the hollowing out of much of our traditional industries. I believe there will be some resurgence in the coal industry in the next few years because of energy needs. But, at the same time, fewer people than ever before are going to be working in that industry. And Marshall, I believe, is critical because of its strong emphasis on technology, rural health care and training educators. Marshall will be central.

For instance, I was in Washington yesterday and I met with Congressman Rahall and we talked about ways that the new transportation school that is named after him (The Nick J. Rahall II Appalachian Transportation Institute) can be used, as well as the research it can provide, to assist in economic development. And he’s just as committed from the federal end. President Angel has been talking with me about the same issues and has outlined what Marshall University wants to achieve in the future. So I think the state needs to be working to assist the university in reaching their goals.

Governor Bob Wise

HQ: Some of your critics in this region see a WVU slant in many of your appointments. How would you answer them?

WISE: My administration is neither blue nor gold nor green and white nor orange or black nor any other colors. We want to do what’s best for West Virginia.

Let me say that I grow concerned when people want to try and create divergence or stoke up regional or collegiate differences. The fact of the matter is there’s more than enough work for all of us to handle. I’m very pleased with the fact that President Angel and I were able to negotiate a loaned executive agreement so that Dr. Jan Fox can work with our administration as a special assistant to the Governor. Her work on information issues will help move West Virginia into the future and save the State and our taxpayers millions of dollars by having a coherent technology policy that applies to all state agencies.

Additionally, I have named Wendy Thomas as Director of the West Virginia Women’s Commission, Larry Stark as Banking Commissioner, Trent Redman as Chairman of the Workforce Development Agency and Arley Johnson as its Executive Director. Several others from the area have been appointed to positions within this administration.

I am very pleased with some of the appointments that I have made from the Huntington area. And indeed, what I’ve been doing is drawing shamelessly upon the resources of anybody who wants to help. Whether it’s Marshall University, WVU, you name it. If they’ve got something, I want to be there taking advantage of it. And Marshall University has been very, very helpful.

I would ask people not to look at where somebody graduated or where they may have come from to work in my administration but rather to look at the result. And the result will be that, through the assistance of Marshall and the assistance of WVU and the assistance of many of the other institutions of higher education, we’re going to move this state forward.

HQ: One of the efforts in recent years to unite two traditional rivals — Huntington and Charleston — has been the Advantage Valley organization. What do you see as the role of Advantage Valley in moving the Ashland-Huntington-Charleston region forward in terms of economic development?

WISE: I see Advantage Valley as being very important because it gets us over our regionalism. I was just at a breakfast this morning in which Bob O’Dell, the vice-president of Advantage Valley, was speaking. He challenged me to support legislation that would permit the sharing of tax revenue across county lines for common economic development projects. My challenge back to him was, "Draft me the legislation so we can save some time on it, and we’ll review it and I’ll be happy to support that."

I also see Advantage Valley as being a good vehicle for advancing the area from Huntington to Charleston as a high-tech corridor, and with Marshall obviously being the linchpin of that. A high-tech corridor has developed along I-79 from Clarksburg to Morgantown thanks to the efforts of Sen. Byrd, Sen. Rockefeller and Congressman Mollohan as well as the private sector and WVU.

We could be doing the same thing working with Advantage Valley and with Marshall. The same thing can be developing along I-64. I believe that we have additional advantages with location. For instance, the continued expansion of the Toyota plant clearly demonstrates that if you have a good transportation system and you have an excellent work force, you can attract the highest quality companies. And so this region is well positioned and Advantage Valley and Marshall University are leading the way.

HQ: Speaking of transportation, the issue of a regional airport...

WISE: [Smiling] I was wondering when you would get to that.

HQ: The issue of a regional airport being constructed to serve Huntington, Charleston and beyond is one of the matters that you indicated you would try to bring to a resolution in the first year of your administration. It’s been studied and debated for a long time in this region. What is your position on the construction of the airport?

WISE: Well, I have always had a keen interest in this issue. Nine years ago I was the one who worked with Congressman Rahall and held the first meeting to explore the feasibility of building a regional airport. I have been involved on three different occasions with our congressional delegation to secure the funding to continue the study process. I secured funding in 1994-95 for a feasibility study to show the economic benefits of such a structure. And I have consistently said that the process ought to move forward. In my first two weeks as Governor, I have met with the engineering firm doing the study and told them that it needs to be moved along.

I have done something no other Governor has done that I’m aware of, which is to appoint somebody that reports directly to me and to the Secretary of Transportation. Lowell Johnson, who probably has the best institutional knowledge of the whole issue since he has worked with me for nearly 10 years and has attended almost every meeting on this subject, is the man I hand picked to oversee the regional airport issue. His job now is to work to be the front person, the person who follows this issue and pushes it and brings the parties together.

My strategy is to get the studies finished so that we have the best numbers. If the studies on the regional airport look good, then we’ll start working with the different parties, Kanawha County, Cabell County and everybody in between to reach a political consensus on building it. And I think the Governor’s office can bring a lot to the table. The reality of it is that even with the best engineering and environmental and economic justification, if you don’t have the political consensus by all the major population areas, then it won’t be built because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is not going to put scarce dollars into a controversial project. So, therefore, I think another role this Governor is going to have to perform is to help bring those parties together. So, it’s a several-step process. But we’re not going to let it drag out a number of years. We’re going to take this thing on and try to get it resolved quickly. And it’s a go or no-go decision within a year.

HQ: I had the pleasure of sitting with you at the Marshall-WVU basketball game and I saw how much you and the crowd enjoyed that game. I look forward to sitting with you at the next Marshall-WVU football game. Any idea when that might be?

WISE: I would like to be the Governor who flips a coin to start that game off, knowing that all the parties have come together and agreed that it’s the thing to do. And I think that is something to work towards.

HQ: In 1982 the Charleston Daily Mail referred to you as "the Boy Wonder of West Virginia politics."

WISE: They said a lot of things about me in between. [Laughs]

HQ: Do you still feel like that today?

WISE: A "Boy Wonder?" Actually, I ran into the reporter who wrote that. She was working with the New York Times a number of years later. And she looked at me and she said, "Well, you’ve lost a lot of hair and what hair you have is gray. I don’t think you’re the ‘Boy Wonder’ anymore." No, I feel very fortunate to have the positions I have and I think I’ve matured a lot over the past 25 years, as we all do. Let’s just say that I’m happy to be a middle-aged public servant.

HQ: If you are fortunate enough to be re-elected and serve eight years as Governor, do you think you will retire or put your undefeated political record on the line again?

WISE: Well, let me put it this way, even if I have the privilege of serving a second term, I’ll only have eight years with the State Public Employees Fund. Sandy will never let me get off with just that. I don’t know. I mean I am incredibly happy and fortunate to have the position I do. It is the greatest challenge I’ve ever had.

I just want to work at it as hard as I possibly can and we’ll see at the end whether people think I’ve done a good job. And in a political position, you don’t want to look too far down the road. You do the best job you can where you are. It’s just like any other job. Voters will determine whether or not they want to move you someplace else.

As far as I’m concerned, the Office of Governor in the State of West Virginia is the greatest position one can have and I look forward to working as hard as I possibly can to give this job my best effort.

 

 

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