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Rucker says, ‘I have stood up to the establishment.’ Espinosa counters, ‘Work together as a team.’

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Patricia Rucker and Paul Espinosa, Republican legislators from growing Jefferson County, have often occupied similar spaces of political turf.

Now, as voters have a choice between the two in a state Senate race, one way of differentiating is their approach to the current Senate leadership.

Their race exemplifies a divide in the Senate. Although there is a Republican supermajority, there is a dividing line among populist-focused and establishment-leaning members. That’s a split likely to continue in committee meetings, in floor votes and behind the scenes. And it’s taking shape in a series of primary election battles across the state.

Patricia Rucker

Rucker, a two-term senator first elected in 2016, has sometimes bucked the leadership. Two years ago, she challenged a one-time ally, Senate President Craig Blair of neighboring Berkeley County, for leadership of the chamber. She eventually withdrew her challenge.

In concluding remarks of a debate with Espinosa last week at WEPM Radio in Martinsburg, Rucker made clear that while she can cooperate with her legislative colleagues she is also willing to part ways.

“I have stood up to the establishment for my district, and I will continue to do so,” Rucker said.

Paul Espinosa

Espinosa, who has served in the House of Delegates since 2012, is challenging her for the Senate seat. In the House, Espinosa has been a key player on the majority’s leadership team — most recently serving as speaker pro tempore, which means he sometimes takes the lead in floor sessions.

When Espinosa officially filed to run for the seat in early January, he was accompanied by Blair, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr and the longest-serving senator, Donna Boley.

In his own closing remarks at the radio debate in Martinsburg, Espinosa characterized himself as a team player.

“While I’m extremely proud of our legislative accomplishments, I believe this election is about who can be the most effective voice for the 16th District in Charleston going forward,” Espinosa said.

“I’ve demonstrated what can be accomplished when we work together as a team rather than engage in divisive, Washington-style politics. And that’s the same collaborative, consensus-building approach I’ll bring to the state Senate.”

District 16, where Rucker and Espinosa are running, covers all of Jefferson County and part of Berkeley County. That’s one of the few growing areas of the state, in the exurbs of Washington, D.C. The median household income in Jefferson County is $93,744 compared to $54,329 elsewhere in West Virginia.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination for Senate will face off against John Doyle, a Democrat who has served in the House of Delegates off and on across nearly three decades.

Campaign finance filings with the Secretary of State show Rucker has raised $65,102 to spend in defending the seat. Espinosa has raised a nearly even amount, $68,870. Senators Blair and Tarr are listed among Espinosa’s top campaign contributors.

Their race is among the many intraparty battles taking place across the state as the May 14 primary election approaches. Others include:

Ex-delegate Mike Folk and veteran Tom Willis challenging Senate President Blair in the Berkeley County area; Delegate Chris Pritt against Senator Eric Nelson in Kanawha County; developer Robbie Morris against incumbent Senator Robert Karnes in a big district that includes Randolph County; former sheriff’s deputy Scott Adams against Senator Ryan Weld in the Brooke County area; and Chris Rose, who mounted a brief campaign for U.S. Senate, now running against Senator Mike Maroney in a district sprawling over nine counties.

Rucker, 49, was born in Venezuela, a background that she regularly describes as shaping her conservative political views. She first ran for state office in a 2014 House of Delegates race against incumbent Democrat Stephen Skinner and lost by 133 votes. In 2016, she faced off against Skinner again for a state Senate seat and beat him by 2,377 votes.

Rucker’s experiences with homeschooling her children mirror her support of school choice issues. “I’ve been a leader and a catalyst for school reform,” she said in the debate’s opening remarks.

“Because of my work and my leadership and being principled, I have been challenged by political establishment who does not like someone who stands up and will do what I think is the right thing to do despite any effort or bullying,” Rucker said in her debate introduction.

Espinosa, 61, is the public affairs manager for the Rockwool insulation manufacturing facility in Ranson. He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2012, winning that race and every one since by wide margins.

“I believe Berkeley and Jefferson Counties deserve the strongest possible team to make sure their voices are heard in Charleston,” Espinosa said in the debate’s opening remarks.

“As state senator from the 16th district, I’ll bring the same collaborative, consensus-building approach to the West Virginia Senate that I’ve demonstrated time and time again in the West Virginia House of Delegates.”

Rucker and Espinosa each have supported legislative policies like tax cuts, charter schools, education dollars supporting students outside the public school system and abortion restrictions.

In the debate, they expressed some nuanced differences on issues like exemptions to school vaccination requirements and the governor’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic.

Rucker described herself as a “sponsor of most of the bills having to do with vaccination exemptions. She disagreed with the governor’s recent veto of a bill that would have loosened some vaccination standards.

“I think that we need to be like all of our surrounding states and allow people to have the ability to choose what is best for them, and the government should not be telling people what gets injected into their bodies,” Rucker said.

Espinosa said he had been torn in debate over the bill that would have allowed exemptions for virtual public school students and independent standards for private schools.

“So while I personally support vaccination, I do respect those that have deeply held beliefs that are different from mine,” said Espinosa, who concluded there should be a balance of reasonable exceptions while encouraging people to have their children vaccinated.

A later question focused on perceptions of the governor’s leadership during the covid-19 pandemic.

Espinosa indicated the governor was responsive and responsible.

“While I certainly can’t say that I agree with every decision that the governor made, I think on balance if you look at how West Virginia fared compared to other states that had a much more restrictive approach to what businesses can be open and tourism-type activities like our casinos — how they were restricted in the early days and weeks of the pandemic — I think the governor got it pretty close to right.”

Rucker had more criticism.

“I’m not willing to quite give the governor that much credit,” she said. “I remember it a little bit differently where it was the legislative leadership that really pushed the governor to reopen the state faster than the governor really wanted to.”

Rucker also described a legislative push to allow people to return to work even if they had not received the vaccine for covid-19. And she said the legislature needed to push harder to limit executive power.

“He was a little heavy-handed on some things,” she said, “and thankfully there was enough pressure from the legislative body and leadership that the governor did roll back some of the things that he really wanted to maintain closed and continue to keep people from doing — but I think it was the pressure of the legislature.”

In comments after the debate, Rucker said she is perfectly willing to cooperate with her fellow legislators on policy — but she again said she is willing to part ways when necessary.

“I get along with all of my colleagues and I respect them all and I want all of them to be successful,” she said. “But I am not afraid to oppose or speak up when I see something that I don’t agree with or I think could be better — because my number one priority is going to be the citizens of West Virginia and especially the constituents that I represent.

“So I do sometimes find myself on the opposite side of the current leadership because I don’t always agree with things and how they’re done and how they’re communicated.”

Espinosa, also commenting after the debate had concluded, again described himself as a team player, saying he works hard to find common ground. He described seeking compromise to identify policies in an omnibus education bill that would pass — or the details of a tax cut that could gain support from a majority.

“I think it’s maybe a matter of a difference of approach,” Espinosa said. “I certainly don’t agree with Senate leadership on everything that they do, nor do I necessarily agree all the time with my colleagues in the House.”

He concluded, “Don’t always agree, but working together I’ve found that you can accomplish a whole lot more than being divisive.”

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