Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker today announced a challenge to Senator Craig Blair for leadership of the chamber.
Blair has been poised to replace Rucker as education chairwoman, an announcement he’ll make officially this week. And there have been rumblings for weeks that fissures in the Republican caucus could result in a challenge to Blair.
All that conflict over leadership of the Republican majority in the Senate is coming to a head right now.
“I believe this is the right time to essentially work towards ensuring that the voters know that we will be moving in a new direction and in a much more positive direction. I am announcing today that I am running for Senate president because I believe we need different leadership,” she said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“We have failed in making progress on key Republican priorities like reducing taxes and protecting life, which to me is so very important and front and center to what we should be doing.”
BREAKING NEWS! @RuckerforWV announces that she will be running for the state senate president position challenging Craig Blair. She discusses her reasoning behind this announcement with @HoppyKercheval. WATCH: https://t.co/yCFQ3nDJuy pic.twitter.com/cxcYa7K1lU
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) August 31, 2022
Rucker and Blair are both Republicans, both represent Eastern Panhandle counties and have been representatives of the same Senate leadership team.
But divisions in the Republican supermajority have been apparent in recent months. Most recently, as Rucker alluded, Senate Republicans split over key issues in a comprehensive abortion bill that was being considered in special session, criminal penalties for medical providers and exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
And in that same special session the Senate majority tabled an income tax cut proposal pushed by Gov. Jim Justice and supported by most members of the House of Delegates, making a priority of future property tax cuts instead.
Months before that, the supermajority was clearly divided over the shape of their own new districts for the next 10 years, with more moderate Republicans at loggerheads with farther right Republicans in closed door discussions that took a full week to resolve.
Speaking on the telephone today from the West Virginia Business Summit, Blair said he intends to continue in his role, making a priority of fiscal restraint and laying the groundwork for property tax cuts to give businesses a break on their machinery and inventory and car owners a break on their vehicles.
He said Rucker has every right to mount a challenge but also suggested she’ll face an uphill battle.
“This is a little bit of a power play that has no power in it at all. We’re going to continue doing the right thing for the people of West Virginia. Nobody can argue the success that we’ve had pushing down on the accelerator,” he said.
Blair acknowledged that he’s about to make a switch in leadership of the education committee. While acknowledging Rucker has spearheaded school choice reforms like new charter schools and the Hope Scholarship for students leaving the public education system, Blair said the emphasis now should be on improvements to the public school system.
“This is just a small blip on the screen. I think her feelings are hurt because we are going to change who the education chairman is because the window of opportunity for public education has arrived,” Blair said.
Blair did not officially disclose in the telephone interview who the new education committee leader will be, but multiple sources say it’s Senator Amy Nichole Grady, a Republican from Mason County and an elementary school teacher.
The challenge to Senate leadership has a parallel in the House of Delegates, where House Government Organization Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, earlier this month said he will vie for the role currently held by Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.
Votes for chamber leadership will take place among caucus members in December, prior to the next regular legislative session and after this fall’s General Election. So some candidates who aren’t yet in those offices will have opportunities to affect the leadership choices.
“I will tell you that I’ve been talking to members. I’m not ready at this point to announce any kind of a vote count because it is early, and folks still have time before they have to make a decision. But I have received support, and I definitely feel that there are members that agree and would like to see a different way of doing things.
“But we in the Senate, we don’t air out our differences; we prefer to stay on a positive note. I believe we will continue to do that, and we all like each other.”
Blair has served as Senate president since 2020 and has served in the Legislature since 2002. Rucker was first elected to the Senate in 2016 and has served as education chairwoman since late 2018.
“We are a really strong group in the Senate and have demonstrated that we can stay united, and I want to continue that. But I do believe that, again, there’s different ways in which you can get things done. The way I prefer doing it is working as a team, talking to other members, respecting all the members and all the opinions, and I really just feel that I may be stronger in those type of skills,” Rucker said.