Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

June 22, 2014

38th District: Hymes, Chafin hoping to fill Puckett’s vacated seat

TAZEWELL, Va. — When veteran Southwest Virginia lawmaker Phillip Puckett abruptly resigned from the state Senate earlier this month, politics in the Commonwealth of Virginia were thrown for an unexpected loop.

Before Puckett resigned, a bitter stalemate between the then Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House over whether to accept additional federal Medicaid dollars under the new Affordable Care Act law had left Virginia on the brink of a state-government shutdown. But when Puckett — a popular Democrat — quit after 16 years of service to the 38th Senatorial District, Republicans gained a slim majority in the Senate. And the GOP already had a majority in the House. Suddenly, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe had lost his bargaining edge in the battle to expand the Affordable Care Act — dubbed “Obamacare” by critics — in the state.

A special election was ordered for Tuesday, Aug. 19, to fill Puckett’s unexpired term, which goes through November 2015. And although the 38th Senatorial District is composed of the counties of Tazewell, Pulaksi, Russell, Buchanan, Dickenson, Wise, Bland, Smyth and the cities of Radford and Norton, both political parties decided to hold their mass gatherings in Tazewell County. That decision may have been based in part on the fact that most of the announced candidates were from Tazewell County and neighboring Russell County.

The Democratic mass gathering — originally slated for Graham High School in Bluefield, Va., — was canceled after no one filed to challenge Mike Hymes, who had announced his intentions to seek the Democratic nomination earlier in the week. Republicans proceeded with their mass gathering at the Tazewell County Fairgrounds where three candidates vied for the GOP nomination. The winner was Delegate A. Benton “Ben” Chafin Jr., R-Russell.

A third candidate also could be making a push for the 38th District seat. Rick Mullins, the  owner of a funeral home in Clintwood, told the Associated Press last week that he plans to run as an independent in the race. However, the Daily Telegraph had not received any announcements or press releases from Mullins last week concerning his potential candidacy.

The winner of the Aug. 19 contest will decide which political party controls the state Senate, and ultimately the General Assembly.

Both Hymes and Chafin were questioned last week by the Daily Telegraph concerning a number of topics, including the Affordable Care Act controversy.

“I oppose Obamacare,” Hymes, the Democratic nominee said. “From my experience on the Carilion Tazewell Community hospital board, I know that Carilion provides about $30 million worth of charity care system-wide and that reimbursements for all hospitals are going down. Because of that, all the hospitals in my district are at risk, in fact one out of my district in Lee County recently closed.”

However, Hymes said the state still needs to find a way to help those in need.

“We need to find a way to provide care to the approximately 20,000 people in the district who don't have it, many of them are low-wage workers who just cannot afford the premiums for the coverage, but we need a Virginia solution to this problem, not one from Washington, D.C.,” Hymes said.

Chafin said he voted against the Affordable Care Act expansion in Virginia five times as a member of the state House of Delegates.

“I’m opposed to the Medicaid expansion as it is currently proposed,” Chafin said. “I voted five times to not do it. The bottom line — and we have said from day one in the House of Delegates — that our Medicaid laws need to be substantially reformed.”

Chafin said he doesn’t believe McAuliffe has the authority as governor to expand Obamacare in Virginia without the approval of the Virginia General Assembly.

“I’m a lawyer, and I read the Constitution and it is plain in its meaning,” Chafin said. “In my mind there is a separation of power here.”

Both Hymes and Chafin were asked about the short, two-month, abbreviated campaign.

“It is going to be a tight schedule, but I already have a large portion of the legislative district I campaigned in and was elected in,” Chafin said of his current 4th District House seat. “I’ve already canvassed these folks and worked with them. So for about a year I’ve been campaigning and representing that part of the district. I know it will be a very compressed race, but I feel I have the energy to get to it.”

“Running a campaign this short is like starting at the end of the campaign instead of the beginning,” Hymes said. “Fortunately I have a lot of friends around the district who have started getting me in front of their friends and groups.”

Both Hymes and Chafin said they would work for jobs and fight for the region’s coal industry, while also fighting against President Barack Obama’s war on coal. And they both say the statewide and national attention focused on the 38th District race will not distract them.

Hymes said his entire working life has been spent working for the coal industry.

“As a person who has worked in the coal industry my entire working life, the main things I am interested in is protecting our coal jobs, coal miners, improving our economy and adequately funding our public schools,” Hymes said “It is important for the Senate of Virginia to have a coal Democrat. I couldn’t care less what national commentators have to say. The most important thing is to fight President Obama's war on coal. We can use tax incentives to bring in new businesses and help the ones here grow. We need a more efficient workforce training system that matches up our residents’ skills with potential employers. We can use our career and technical education programs to provide this training.”

Hymes said he is steadfastly opposed to EPA regulations targeting not only coal — but now the gas industry and even farms.

“As a third generation coal miner and an employee of a coal company, no one will fight harder than I will to protect the coal industry,” Hymes said. “We are already fighting these devastating regulations at every turn. We should provide incentives to get in-state power plants to use more Virginia coal, provide tax incentives for job creation and to help decrease the cost of coal that is more difficult to mine. The EPA has gone way to far. First coal and now they are going after our farms, feedlots, gas industry and manufacturers.”

Chafin said he already has a proven record in the Virginia General Assembly of fighting for coal and against President Barack Obama’s war on coal.

“Well I’m the only candidate that has a proven record for getting things done thus far on a regional basis, and I’m very happy with the record we have,” Chafin said. “We were able to pass the only law and get the law enacted that fights back on the EPA’s war on coal. We feel like we will be able to work in a more intense fashion going forward. We have ideas on how to stem the slow influence that is coming from Washington, D.C., through the Environmental Protection Agency to take some of the pressure off of our coal industry as well as our power plants. We have ideas. We did make a difference. We amended the Virginia Energy Act Plan and the governor signed it. I was shocked that he signed it into law. The law itself is designed to help us identify exactly what the EPA is doing to damage our industry, our coal plant industry as well as our citizens by increasing the cost of energy from the power plant to the end consumer — you and me. So the law we passed is a good first step. As far as getting workers back to work that are laid off or getting them re-skilled, we have plans to relocate in Southwest Virginia an advance manufacturing training center. I imagine that being something that will allow our workforce to be re-tooled for advance training.”

Chafin said he understands the importance — and statewide implications — of the special election race.

“I knew what the race represented when I decided to run for the Republican nomination,” Chafin said. “I understood it fully. I understand that regardless of the timing of the race that this would be an important race for the Republican Party to re-establish conservative values for Virginia, and I knew it would garner national attention.”

Hymes is a third generation coal miner. His father and grandfather were coal miners. He was born in Bluefield and spent his early years in a coal camp in Bishop, Va., where his father worked in the mine. His family later moved to Tazewell and Hymes worked in the mines in McDowell County. He is currently the corporate director of Human Resources at James River Coal Company.

Chafin is a current member of the Virginia House of Delegates who also works as an attorney and is the owner and operator of a beef-cattle farm in Moccasin Valley. Chafin currently represents the 4th District in Virginia’s House of Delegates and is chairman of the board of First Bank and Trust Company.

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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