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Despite legislative successes, Wise seen as forsaking supporter

by Gavin McCormick

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- In an annual political ritual known as "The Third House," state lawmakers and political insiders put aside differences and come to the West Virginia Cultural Center to chuckle at satirical skits performed by reporters.

Each year, the first two rows of theater seats are reserved for those, usually lobbyists such as business, union or special interest leaders, who pay extra for the privilege of sitting near the governor.

This year's show was notable for one reason: Aside from Gov. Bob Wise and his family, the front two rows were empty. The seats were sold, but no one chose to attend.

The absence, which longtime Capitol observers said was unprecedented, symbolizes a growing political problem for Wise as he heads toward a re-election campaign next year.

Despite universal praise for his willingness to tackle tough issues and widespread success in getting major pieces of legislation passed, Wise has harvested a remarkable amount of disgruntlement, even rancor, among legislators in his own Democratic party and interest groups who worked hard to elect him in 2000.

Senate Majority Whip Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, is among conservative Democrats who feel Wise has not heard their concerns.

"'Strained' is the word I'd use," Bailey said. "People's feelings are hurt, and some bridges need to be built."

On the party's labor flank, Sen. Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia, said, "A lot of people feel the governor has forsaken the Democratic base and are not sure they'll work for him again.

"He'll have to work hard in the next year to repair that damage."

Wise bristles at suggestions that he has abandoned his core political principles.

He says repeatedly that he must govern the entire state, not just special interest groups.

"If special interests want me down the line with them on every issue, they can't vote for me," Wise said. "I'm going to make the best decision for the interests of the state, even if it's not in my personal best interests."

As a nine-term congressman Wise was known as a progressive Democrat, West Virginia-style -- that is, a supporter of organized labor, consumer and abortion rights, as well as gun ownership rights.

In the 2003 legislative session, the most significant laws all served to anger at least one of Wise's key 2000 backers.

--Implementing medical malpractice changes, including caps on lawsuit damages, infuriated trial lawyers, who as a group raised the most cash for Wise's run;

--Raising coal truck weights angered both unions and environmental groups;

--Failing to veto a bill requiring women to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion riled abortion rights supporters.

Also, failure to pass a pay raise for teachers undermined the governor's support with teacher unions, and a workers' compensation compromise likely to be resurrected this spring will be anathema to labor.

Labor leaders Jim Bowen of the AFL-CIO and Tom Lange of the West Virginia Education Association acknowledge disappointment with Wise's positions, and Bowen criticized the administration's communication style.

"I don't expect a 'yes' every time, but when I get a 'yes' and nothing happens, then I've got a problem," Bowen said. "That has happened with this governor."

Bowen and Lange said their unions remain open to all potential candidates in the next governor's race.

Not so for consumer attorneys, a subset of the state's trial lawyers.

"We brought Bob Wise to the dance, and he left with someone else," Jim Peterson, a Charleston member of the Consumer Attorneys Association, said. "We were jilted, and in the next round of elections, we'll be looking for another candidate."

Complaints about inadequate communication with lawmakers have dogged Wise since his first session.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said that with Republicans forming larger minorities in both chambers, Wise has a greater responsibility to unite with Democratic lawmakers to create a joint legislative agenda.

Steve White of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation said his union continues to back the governor. But he said an area thought to be a Wise strength -- an ability to talk to all sides on tough issues like workers' compensation -- has become a weakness.

"His friends are coming away feeling they got nothing, and his enemies get half and that's not good enough for them," White said. "That leaves the question of who will back him in a tough fight."

Perhaps politically posturing. Wise said he is putting politics aside in the interests of good governing.

"We decided a while ago to let the polls go and let the politics sort itself out," he said. "I'd rather govern for the next two years as a lion than six years as a sparrow."