Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

June 18, 2014

The coalfield counties will now decide which political party controls Richmond

— — Like a perfect storm, a parade of politicians are converging upon Tazewell County. It’s mass gathering week for Democrats and Republicans with both political parties scrambling to nominate a candidate to fill the vacancy created by the abrupt resignation of veteran Democrat Phillip Puckett last week in Virginia’s 38th senatorial district seat.

Puckett had served the nine-county legislative district for 16 years. And now the stakes couldn’t be higher in the race to succeed him. In an ironic twist of fate, it will now be the deep south coalfield counties that will have the final say as to which political party controls the Virginia General Assembly. At the moment, Republicans are in control. And that’s due to Puckett’s surprise resignation last week. There are now 20 Republicans to 19 Democrats in the Senate. Republicans also have a majority advantage in the House of Delegates.

Democrats were scheduled to hold their mass gathering this evening at Graham High School to select their nominee. But the meeting was canceled at the last minute Tuesday evening after no other Democrats filed by the 5 p.m. deadline to seek the nomination. That makes Mike Hymes, the current Southern District member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, the Democratic nominee for the 38th District Senatorial race.

Republicans will hold their mass gathering Thursday at Nuckolls Hall at the Tazewell County Fairgrounds to select a Republican nominee.

Once a Republican candidate is nominated, Hymes and his GOP opponent will then appear on the Tuesday, Aug. 19, special election ballot in the race to fill the vacated 38th District Senatorial seat. And it will be the voters of Tazewell, Buchanan, Dickenson, Wise, Bland, Pulaski, Radford and Smyth — along with the city of Norton — who will have the final say as to which political party will control the General Assembly, at least for another year. If voters in the nine-county district elect a Democrat, the General Assembly will go back to being split evenly between a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House. That was the setting just two weeks ago before Puckett’s resignation kept the Commonwealth of Virginia from experiencing a state government shutdown. If voters in the nine-county district elect a Republican, the GOP will maintain control of both the House and Senate — and undoubtedly create more than a few headaches for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Simply put, the power has shifted to the voters of Southwest Virginia. And the outcome of our vote will have not only statewide, but also national ramifications. The nation will be watching when the southern counties vote on Aug. 19.

Democratic nominee Hymes, who was born in a coal camp in Bishop, Va., says his father and grandfather were coal miners. He also worked in the mines in McDowell County early in his career and is currently the corporate director of human resources at James River Coal Company. Hymes argues that he is the most qualified and knowledgeable candidate when it comes to the coal mining industry and protecting coal jobs. Hymes was first elected to the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors in 2006 and re-elected in 2009.

The question now is who will get the GOP nomination. Candidates who have contacted the Daily Telegraph to date to announce their intent to seek the Republican nomination include:

• Former Buchanan County Commonwealth Attorney Tamara Neo, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the 38th district seat. Neo says she is a “constitution following, government limiting, coal supporting, vocational education advocating, well-armed mother and cattle rancher’s daughter who is a follower of Christ.”

Neo was elected as Buchanan County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2007. She also served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney for two and half years during that time. Neo now practices bankruptcy law in Tazewell. She also serves as vice president on the Commonwealth’s Board of Juvenile Justice.

• Delegate A. Benton “Ben” Chafin, Jr., R-Russell, also is seeking the Republic nomination. Chafin says in the Senate of Virginia, he will fight for policies that grow Southwest Virginia’s economy while standing up for coal as an energy source that can — and does — provide affordable power to the world. He has expressed concern with what he calls the “onerous government interference of Obamacare” while fighting for traditional values.

Chafin currently represents the 4th legislative district in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is an attorney and the owner and operator of a beef-cattle farm in Moccasin Valley.

More candidates could emerge today or at the mass gathering of Republicans Thursday. It should be an interesting two days in Tazewell County. By week’s end, we should have two candidates for the special election. Then the race to succeed Puckett can begin in earnest.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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