WHEELING, W.Va. — Among this year’s races for West Virginia Senate, the most money has been raised for the two campaigns in the 1st Senatorial District where Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns (R-Ohio), a business owner, is facing a challenge from Bill Ihlenfeld, a lawyer with Bailey and Glasser and a former U.S. attorney.

“The voters, I don’t think, could have a more distinct contrast between two candidates,” Ferns said.

On that point, Ihlenfeld, a Democrat, agreed. “I bring a very different kind of perspective and background to the state Senate.”

As of this writing, the latest financial disclosures from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office showed Ferns had raised $202,373 dollars for his re-election campaign, No. 1 among all state Senate candidates, while Ihlenfeld was at No. 2 with contributions that totaled $152,479.

It’s a race that almost didn’t happen.

In February, Ihlenfeld launched his first-ever run for public office when he was appointed to the ballot. The appointment came after no other Democrat filed to run in the 1st District and a friend suggested Ihlenfeld get involved.

“I wasn’t even thinking about. It wasn’t on my radar,” Ihlenfeld admitted. “I thought about returning to public service at some point in time, but not in 2018.”

Ihlenfeld, 46, was an assistant prosecuting attorney from 1997 to 2010 in Ohio County and Brooke County before being appointed U.S. Attorney for West Virginia’s Northern District from 2010 to 2016 at the recommendation of late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.

His father and grandfather, a past mayor of Wheeling, were also prosecutors.

Last year, Ihlenfeld was hired as managing partner for Bailey and Glasser’s new Wheeling office.

If elected to the state Senate, “I want to be a voice for working families,” said Ihlenfeld who’s been finding support among labor leaders and educators, two of the groups that targeted Ferns during this year’s nine-day walkout from teachers and school service personnel.

Ferns, 35, was first elected to the state House of Delegates in 2010 as a Democrat. He changed his party affiliation to Republican in 2013 and ran for state Senate in 2014 as a member of the GOP.

In his 2014 race, Ferns beat incumbent Senator Rocky Fitzsimmons (D-Ohio, 01), who had been appointed to the Senate in 2012, 52 percent to 48 percent — a difference of 941 votes, according to official results from the Secretary of State’s Office.

It was an expensive race.

Fitzsimmons spent more than $474,000 on it, with roughly half of that amount being money he loaned to his own campaign. Ferns’ expenditures for 2014 were just more than $300,000, including personal loans, records indicated.

“I’ve never had an easy race,” Ferns said.

“I ran for the Senate really because I felt like, if I’m giving up 100 days a year away from my family and my friends and my business, then I want to make as much of an impact as possible.”

He’s moved up the ranks quickly with two years spent as chair of the state Senate Health and Human Resources, drawing on his work experience as president and owner of the Ryan Ferns Healthplex located in Benwood.

Ferns was named majority leader in December 2016.

During his time in the Senate, Ferns said he’s been a key part of a Republican team that’s “writing West Virginia’s economic comeback story.”

“What we’ve done in the last four years since Republicans have been in the majority is try to make West Virginia a place that is more attractive to own and operate a business because it’s private investment from job creators that create jobs,” Ferns said.

“If you talk to the citizens of West Virginia, what do they think we need most? It’s jobs. That’s always been the No. 1 priority.”

Higher-paying jobs is key, in Ihlenfeld’s view.

“People love their communities,” he said of the people he wants to represent in the 1st District.

“They want to see better for their communities. They want to see more jobs. They want the drug problem to be cleaned up. They want to see the roads fixed, but they’re not giving up. I don’t hear that at all.”

The 1st Senatorial District includes all of Hancock County, Brooke County and Ohio County along with a portion of Marshall County — an area running between Chester and Cameron.

It’s a region that sits directly between Pennsylvania and Ohio at a time of rapid development in natural gas.

Both Ferns and Ihlenfeld were scheduled to be part of two debates ahead of Election Day.

On Monday, Oct. 22, WTOV Television was hosting the first debate at 7 p.m. at West Virginia Independence Hall.

The second debate from The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register was set for Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018 at West Virginia Northern Community College’s B&O Building in Wheeling.

Shauna Johnson/WVMetroNews.com

CrossFit training is one of the services available at the Ryan Ferns Healthplex which has been located in Benwood, W.Va. for six years.

As majority leader, Ferns has often found himself in the middle of contentious debates on the state Senate floor.

“When are the most difficult, when things are the most heated, I think that’s when I’m at my best,” he said.

“It is a unique position to be in as majority leader, but my top priority, my first priority is to the 1st Senate District. All decisions that I make and all actions that I take, I first consider the 1st Senatorial District and the Northern Panhandle that I represent, the people that I represent because that’s what I was elected to do.”

If re-elected, Ferns said his 2nd term in the state Senate would be focused on addressing economic development and infrastructure needs in the Northern Panhandle with an additional focus on the opioid epidemic.

Streamlining state government to eliminate waste is also a priority issue for him.

“I’m socially conservative. I’m fiscally conservative and my opponent is nearly the opposite of that,” Ferns said.

One of Ihlenfeld’s goals is to be the kind of leader on drug issues in Charleston that, in his view, “we don’t have right now.”

“I would bring a resume and biography on the drug issue that is much different than my opponent and much different than anyone else in Legislature,” Ihlenfeld said.

Ihlenfeld’s platform also includes improved job training, establishment of an Addiction Action Plan, renewed focus on potential government corruption through an inspector general’s position, the elimination of the tax on Social Security benefits and reforms for existing ethics rules.

Shauna Johnson/WVMetroNews.com

This photo in Bill Ihlenfeld’s Wheeling office shows his grandfather, former Wheeling Mayor Charles Ihlenfeld, and President John F. Kennedy.

If elected, “I’m going to go to Charleston with an open mind,” Ihlenfeld pledged. “Some people might say that I’m a fool, that’ll never happen, ‘You’ll never be able to do that,’ but I’m going with an open mind and a policy that I want to work with everyone.”

Both Ferns and Ihlenfeld are natives of Ohio County and have deep family ties in the Northern Panhandle.

Ferns graduated from Wheeling Central Catholic High School and Wheeling Jesuit University where he earned his doctorate in physical therapy.

Ihlenfeld graduated from Wheeling Park High School and West Virginia University’s College of Law.

“My whole reason for being here (in Charleston) is I want to see the Northern Panhandle and the State of West Virginia improve,” Ferns said.

Though he differs on how to do that, Ihlenfeld’s ultimate goal is the same. “I’m excited about the opportunity to use my background in the Senate — if I can get there,” Ihlenfeld said.