When Rick Thompson says, “West Virginia owes me nothing. I owe this state everything,” there is no doubt he means it. There is also little doubt that few men who have shared a similar past would feel the same way.
In 1952, six months before his second son would be born, Richard Thompson died in a coalmine accident near Fort Gay, West Virginia. He left his unborn son his name, the only photo of himself and his wife, which was in his wallet, and a lifelong respect for the men who mine coal. The newspaper report said that Rick Thompson was “about 27 years old,” and speculated that a piece of slate fell from the roof and knocked his carbide lamp into a can of blasting powder, causing an explosion. The story did not mention that his older brother was with him when he died. Mining is always a family business.
Like many West Virginians of the past, and unfortunately of the present as well, Rick and his older brother Steve grew up without plumbing. Rick wore the same blue jeans everyday. But he had a granddad, Fred Thompson, who taught him how to hunt squirrel and rabbit and to be honest and to always tell the truth and to always do what you said you would do. Fred Thompson worked in a nursery for minimum wage.
Rick could also count on a bus driver who wouldn’t leave his stop until the boy was on the bus. A woman in the lunchroom who would get him an extra milk to take home, and the cooks who did the same with left over food. The teachers were good to him too, like Mrs. Faye Thompson (no relation) who taught him English.
At Fort Gay High School, he played baseball and by the time he was 17, he earned the grades to attend Marshall University. After the first year of college, though, his brother Steve died of cancer, and Rick didn’t have the money to stay in school, so he took a job with the railroad. He worked on the “cross tie gang,” hauling 200-pound timbers for 14-hour days in the middle of nowhere and sleeping in the rail cars at night. For almost a year, he sent money home and saved all he could, hoping to return to college. The country was at war, however, so the following year he volunteered for the draft.
After Basic and advanced training, Rick qualified for the Army officer’s entrance exam, but chose not to take it. He began service in September of 1972, and sent money home to install a phone, so that he could hear the voices of his family. After two years active duty and four inactive, he returned to Marshall to study criminal justice.
The G.I. Bill helped with tuition, and Rick worked as a ranger in Huntington and was a Fuller brush salesman. One of his professors, Dr. Choi, felt so strongly that Rick was cut out for law school, that one day he placed the entrance exam on his student’s desk and told him that if he didn’t complete it, he would fail the class. Rick went on to earn his J.D. at West Virginia University, and returned to Wayne County to open a legal practice.
Although Rick’s uncle became the mayor of Fort Gay, it never occurred to him to run for office himself. It happened almost by accident with a friendly conversation at lunch, but after weekends spent with family and friends walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors, the people of his community sent Rick Thompson to the House of Delegates in 1980.
A year later, he gave up his seat to serve as an assistant prosecuting attorney, to coach little league, and to eventually go back to his legal practice and to marry Miss. Beth Chambers. For the next 22 years, Beth ran the law office, served in her church and her community and raised a family that encourages each other’s strengths and shares each other’s interest from music to hunting to politics. (Yes, Beth hunts too.) When Rick Thompson says, “I couldn’t do it without her,” he means it.
In 2000, Rick Thompson returned to the House of Delegates, winning election to the 17th District, representing Wayne County. One of his first initiatives was to push for a Clean Water Act, to protect West Virginia streams before the federal government stepped in and shut down the state’s coalmines. Seven years later, he was elected Speaker of the House, largely by a band of “back-row” representatives who felt it was time for a more open process with equal participation and fairness in funding.
Rather than circling himself with loyal friends, Speaker Thompson looked at each representative’s talents to decide committee chairmanships. He changed the rules to open debate, and he ended the process by which bills could be bundled together and voted on in block, rather than receiving proper scrutiny.
One of the first actions taken up by the new House was abolishing the business franchise tax by responsibly phasing it out, which Thompson had always viewed as unfair. At the same time, he ended an anti-worker trend, which had developed in the previous years. By all accounts, the House of Delegates changed from a place of bickering where legislation went to die, to a body that shaped policy and set a direction.
Today, Rick Thompson is running for Governor. He doesn’t need a job, and he would rather spend his Saturday mornings bow-hunting than giving speeches. (When he does give a speech, he’s often asked to follow it with his guitar and a song.) Those who work in the Capital know that Rick Thompson lacks the ego and the desire for power, too often present in politics today. His vision for the office is one of responsibility and service. More than anyone else, Speaker Thompson has dealt with the diverse and often-competing agendas brought to Charleston from across the state and has proven that he can find a balance and build consensus.
Thompson says, “There’s a mindset to hold on to what you have instead of moving forward, and someone needs to break that thinking and set an agenda.” His agenda is straightforward – forming a vision for what West Virginia will look like fifty years in the future, from the state’s education system to its industry and infrastructure. “We’ve been coal, and though there’s plenty of it left, there is plenty more to West Virginia. We have the location, the resources, and the people. If we can look beyond coal and put politics aside, we will be uniquely positioned as an epicenter for America’s future growth and opportunity.”
Rick Thompson has a vision for the office of governor, namely to set a vision, but he also has a drive that only comes from a clear focus – the coal miner and his family, the single mother, the working grandfather, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers, rail workers, college students, and our veterans. As he says, “West Virginia owes me nothing. I owe the people of this state everything.”
I've met Rick Thompson. He's a true supporter of the labor movement. I'm proud to support him as a candidate.
p.s. - That is my son, Aodhan, with Rick in that photo.