CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tim Armstead spent 2007 to 2014 as the Minority Leader in the House of Delegates. Since then, with Republicans swinging to the majority, Armstead has been the Speaker.
So when Armstead announced Friday that he doesn’t intend to run for re-election, it became pretty clear that Republican delegates are in for some big changes.
The first order of business for Republicans will be an effort to retain the majority during the 2018 election cycle. Even at that, there are a lot of comings and goings in the House as some delegates seek other elected offices.
So what happens next is very much up in the air. And whoever comes out as the next Speaker may have their own ideas about who should fill out the rest of the leadership positions in the House.
What Republicans in the House do know is they are losing a model of stability.
“Sorry to see him go, but I can understand that after 20 years people sometimes want to do other things with their life,” said Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley.
Armstead was first appointed to fill a vacant seat in the House in 1998 by then-Gov. Cecil Underwood. He served 10 terms and said he intends to serve out this full term, both as a delegate and as Speaker. So his term would end in December.
Armstead left his political future open but specified that he has been strongly considering a run for state Supreme Court in 2020. The seats up for election that year are those currently occupied by Justices Margaret Workman and Menis Ketchum. Both originally ran as Democrats, although court races are now nonpartisan.
Even as Armstead’s announcement was being absorbed, Republican delegates were thinking about how far they’d come from the minority to the majority in the House — as well as what’s ahead.
Once they gained the majority, Republicans fulfilled long-sought goals such as passing right-to-work legislation, doing away with prevailing wage and making changes to West Virginia’s torts system.
But for two years straight they also wound up in special sessions, putting together budgets up against declining revenue. In both cases, final budgets were passed not long before the start of the new fiscal year.
And in 2016, the Legislature wound up in conflict over a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” bill that passed the House before being voted down narrowly in the Senate.
Overington, who was first elected to the House 34 years ago, has been along for the entire ride. Many of Overington’s first 20 years as a delegate, Republicans had about one-quarter to one-third of the seats.
“It was exciting when we became the majority party and elected Tim,” Overington said.
He recalled the two sharing an office after Armstead was first elected in 1998.
“I’ll take credit for all his success, giving him good guidance when we shared the office downstairs together. We had a great time, and it’s just outstanding that he became our Speaker.”
Now, Overington says, he’d like to see the next Speaker possess many of the same traits Armstead displayed.
“I’d like to see someone of the same mold — a conservative Speaker that listens to the full gamut of Republican legislators,” Overington said. “I have great respect for the challenges when you’re trying to herd cats and you have, in this case, 64 Republican legislators.
“It’s a real challenge. It takes a lot of leadership. You learn that you’re not going to please everybody. But the end result has been we’ve made West Virginia under Tim Armstead’s leadership a much more business friendly state with a lot more job opportunities than we had before.”
Carol Miller is the Majority Whip. She might be mentioned as a potential successor to Armstead, but she decided back in July to run for the open congressional seat in West Virginia’s Third District.
“There’s been so many accomplishments within the past four years — judicial reform, job creation — and he has done a wonderful job working with everyone,” said Miller, R-Cabell. “He’s extremely fair, very honorable. We will miss him terribly. He is a fine, fine individual.”
Miller has served in the House with Armstead since 2006. She said he had the advantage of his experience as Minority Leader before becoming Speaker.
“It’s going to take someone who is thoughtful and fair and looking over the entire good of our state who can help lead us in that direction and unify us as a body,” Miller said. “It will take a very special person. He has big shoes to fill.”
Armstead’s right hand man during Republicans’ four years in the majority has been Daryl Cowes, the Majority Leader. Cowles was first elected to the House in 2006.
“Tim Armstead’s had a great run as our leader — a strong, honorable leadership,” Cowles, R-Morgan, said Friday. “We’ve had a great run over the past several years. Even in the minority party we had a good run. He has presided over and been our party’s leader for a long time.
“He’s not finished. It’s my understanding that he’s looking at a run for the state Supreme Court. It’s his style that he wouldn’t use the office of speaker to help promote that but rather step aside and consider his options for the state Supreme Court later.”
Cowles said no discussions have happened yet about who might be the next Speaker. He said that as long as Armstead remains in the role, the party needs to focus on longtime goals such as establishing 100 single-member districts for House elections after 2020 and eliminating property taxes for industrial manufacturers.
“We are going to try to keep our nose to the grindstone and get some of these policies across the finish line this year,” Cowles said. “He remains our Speaker, but we’ll just have to see how that shakes out down the road.”
House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson said he didn’t know Armstead well until he was first elected to the House in 2010. He said it’s been clear what Armstead stood for.
“Couldn’t be a better person leading our House right now with his experience and background,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha.
“I think there’s been a base theme under his leadership of greater transparency, living within your means and how can government be much more efficient to the citizens of our state. I think he’s been tried and true — we’ve been tried and true under that motto.”
Nelson said there’s more to be done.
“We’re just skimming the surface,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to do the right things to create jobs and economic opportunity. The job’s never done in that area.”