The following is part of the ongoing MetroNews series previewing the candidates vying for the State Senate in the 16 contested races in 2018.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The 13th Senate District is keeping it in the family this year.
Okay, maybe not precisely “family.” But voters in Monongalia and Marion counties are certainly keeping to a specific format, because the two candidates in this potential nailbiter have combined to serve the last six State Senate terms in the district.
And both served as Democrats. Confused yet?
Sen. Bob Beach, the Democratic incumbent who was raised on his family’s farm just outside of Morgantown, is vying for his third term. His opponent is the man he succeeded eight years prior — former Delegate and State Senator Mike Oliverio, a financial adviser and Democrat-turned-Republican who nearly became the 21st man to be elected to Congress in West Virginia’s first district in 2010.
After unseating long-time Democrat Alan Mollohan in his bid for his 15th consecutive term to Congress, then-Democrat Oliverio, Fairmont-born and Morgantown-raised, lost by 1,440 votes to Republican David McKinley.
Simultaneously, Beach — who now lives in Morgantown — won by a razor-thin 206 votes in a race against Cindy Frich, an on-again-off-again member of the House of Delegate who returned to office in 2012.
Oliverio briefly flirted with a 2012 run for Congress. Instead, he chose to raise a family and continue working at Northwestern Mutual. Beach, in the meantime, defeated Kris Warner by a more comfortable margin in 2014 even as Democratic senators around the state were being unceremoniously removed from office by voters in a historic Republican takeover.
A 17-17 deadlock in the State Senate following the conclusion of the 2014 elections quickly turned to an 18-16 Republican majority following a late defection. Oliverio said West Virginia’s trend-line towards the Republican Party is obvious, which is one reason he chose to switch parties.
“I think West Virginia has clearly been moving that direction. I felt like at the time that I made the switch that the Republicans would be in control for a long time to come, and I want to be a part of the majority party.”
He added: “But I also share some of the goals with what the party is trying to do in respect to trying to grow our economy.”
Beach thinks Oliverio may be presumptive in assuming Democrats can’t retake the State Senate with 16 of 17 races contested this year.
“I believe the Democrats have a very strong shot at recapturing the Senate by all the polling we’ve seen in different districts, individual personalities that our out there campaigning for office,” he said. “Yeah, I think there’s a very strong shot.”
Regardless of who takes control, Beach said the emphasis needs to be on a long-term fix for the Public Employees Insurance Agency — of which a not insignificant number of his constituents use.
“We’re dealing with PEIA, and we have to put that first and foremost,” Beach said. “There were a lot of promises made last session that requires us to keep that promise.”
As much as Beach wishes the next Legislature could focus its an entire attention on PEIA, he said the opioid crisis remains front-and-center.
“There are things that we could address that could fix the problem — not easily,” he said. “But could be a long-term impact on getting this problem eradicated in the state of West Virginia.”
He continued: “Heard a staggering statistic just this week that in the past two years we’ve lost as many people to overdoses as we did in the Vietnam War. That’s a staggering number to consider.”
Oliverio, though, considers himself the more qualified of the two when it comes dealing with long-term and complex financial aspects like public sector retirement — and that’s not just a result of his time at Northwestern Mutual. Oliverio took credit for guiding teacher pensions out of the gutter during his previous stint as a state senator.
“I want to be that person that the general public looks at and says, ‘I trust Mike, he’ll evaluate the issue, he’ll gather all the facts, and he’ll make a decision that’s in our best interests’” Oliverio said. “‘I may not agree with the decision Mike makes every time, but I’ll agree with the understanding of he did his homework, he gathered the facts, and he did what he thought was right.’”
That type of financial savvy is what Oliverio hopes to contribute at the Capitol — continuing in the effort to turn around the state’s economy.
“I’ve been tired of seeing so many young people leave our state to find employment, and I was motivated to come back into the Legislature to try to see if we can make a difference on that front alone,” Oliverio said.
He added: “I’ve talked to young people who said they want to leave the area because of the roads,”
That’s where Oliverio pivots to what might be the most popular subject in Monongalia County — the roads (you may be familiar with the Hoppy Kercheval anthem: #FTDR).
“Senator Bob Beach has chaired the transportation committee, he served on the Blue Ribbon transportation task force,” Oliverio said. “Yet the roads in our district are among the worst in the state.”
Beach countered by suggesting he is a transportation advocate — citing his concerns with the Department of Highways and his successful pursuit of an audit of District 4 — which includes Monongalia and Marion counties.
“I think there’s a lot of neglected projects in Monongalia County that have not been done here in the past two years,” he said.
DOH District 4 — consisting of Monongalia, Marion, Preston, Harrison, Doddridge, and Taylor counties — also has its very own caucus of local leaders who call themselves the “District 4 Caucus on Roads,” a body designed to provide a unified voice to state-level legislators.
“I’m not a real fan of the roads caucus,” Beach said. “I’ve attended a few of those meetings — it’s more of a dog and pony show for the Department of Highways. They are there to tell us what the projects they are working on, where they are at. I don’t feel that we as representatives are getting the best deal out of Charleston.”
Beach is hopeful the audit might shine a light on the many issues that have resulted in years of unfilled potholes.
In the meantime, both Beach and Oliverio have been active in traditional advertising and on social media, yet it’s not clear if one is pulling away from the other. As the race gets closer to its conclusion in a district that is among the most unpredictable in the state, it has also become a little more chippy between the two.
“You’re either in it as a public servant, which I am, or you are in it for the title,” Beach said. “And I believe that’s where my opponent lies — with the title. I’m here to work for the people, and that’s why I do this full-time.”
Oliverio, who considers himself a better option for the region’s business owners than Beach, continues to tout his bona fides — not ideologically, but as an independent thinker.
“If somebody thinks they are going to predict how I am going to vote based on a majority leader or a minority leader’s position, you are not always going to get that right,” he said.
“When it’s all over that majority leader and minority leader might be following behind me when we’ve developed a new and unique solution to that problem.”
Oliverio also said he has what Beach doesn’t have — eight years removed from office.
“I think I bring the best of both worlds in that I’ve had extensive political experience, military service, business experience — but I’ve also been out of politics the past eight years,” he said. “I’ve been able to look at government in the way that everyone else in society has been looking at it to see the failures and understand the frustration that exists.”
Beach, a grandfather of five, touted his ability to be a full-time senator in what’s supposed to be a part-time job.
“I’m just a family guy, just trying to make a living like everyone else, just trying to impact our state in a positive way,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeking re-election, because there are some things out there that we know we can do that will impact West Virginia in a positive way, especially the 13th district.”
The only question left to be answered: will we know the winner on Election Night?