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State court race features first publicly financed candidate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's first publicly financed candidate is running in this year's Supreme Court race, and Republican Allen Loughry is the only one among eight candidates to seek funding through a new pilot project.

First, however, his campaign had to attract at least 500 donations of between $1 and $100 from throughout the state to qualify. These smaller-dollar contributions also had to total at least $35,000.

A longtime law clerk at the court, Loughry exceeded that minimum by a January deadline and said nearly 700 West Virginia voters contributed. As judicial candidates cannot seek funds directly, Loughry credits the more than 50 people on his campaign's finance committee with helping to satisfy the pilot project's requirement that only viable candidates qualify.

"It was enormously difficult, but it should be enormously difficult," Loughry said Wednesday.

Two seats on the five-member court are on the ballot this year, and will go to the top two vote-getters. Loughry and Circuit Judge John Yoder are the only Republicans running, and so are assured of their party's nomination in the May 8 primary. As a result, the program is providing limited funding for now. It offers $50,000 to uncontested primary candidates, minus what they raised to qualify.

Loughry reported a $62,050 campaign balance in his initial campaign finance report, after spending just under $6,000 as of March 30. He'll receive another $350,000 for the general election phase shortly after the primary.

Loughry also hopes for additional funding, to keep pace if privately funded opponents or independent groups outspend his campaign. But a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a matching funding provision in Arizona's public financing law. West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has since concluded that the decision also voids this part of the pilot project.

Loughry disagrees. He cites an earlier ruling by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that upheld North Carolina's public financing program for judicial races, which helped inspire the West Virginia pilot project.

"It is my opinion that the law is still valid," Loughry said. "A law is presumed valid until it is challenged. No one has challenged this law."

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is West Virginia's elections chief, and sought the attorney general's legal advice following the Arizona decision. Loughry said he's asked Tennant's office to apply the matching funding provision if triggered.

"I'm going to ask them one more time to reconsider their position," Loughry said. He added that if he is turned down, "I or someone else will have to seek a remedy through the courts."

Tennant intends to follow McGraw's legal opinion, and the court system can resolve any resulting disagreements, spokesman Jake Glance said Wednesday.

The Legislature created the pilot project amid concerns about the perceived influence of campaign cash on judicial elections. Lawmakers at the time noted that fundraising by Supreme Court candidates had more than doubled, from $1.4 million to $3.3 million, between 2000 and 2008.

Money in West Virginia judicial races also prompted a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision barred Justice Brent Benjamin from hearing cases involving Massey Energy after its chief executive, Don Blankenship, spent more than $3 million to help Benjamin win election in 2004 over incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.

Loughry said he supports the pilot project and sought its funding because he believes the large amounts devoted to judicial elections are "extremely corrosive."

"I'm not generally in favor of public funding for legislative or executive branch races. Those are the political branches of government," Loughry said. "But the judiciary is different. There is so much money poured into these judiciary elections, there's a perception that money buys access."

The author of a book chronicling West Virginia political corruption, Loughry added, "I am absolutely not casting any aspersions on any of the other candidates in this race." But he is also critical of the announcement by one of the Democrats running, former State Bar President Tish Chafin, that she was loaning her campaign $1 million.

"This is not personal, but that sent a message to every child growing up in every rural part of West Virginia that they cannot participate in this political process," Loughry said. "It leaves the perception that you can buy a seat on the Supreme Court just like you can buy a bar of soap at Kroger."

Chafin disagreed with Loughry's view in a Wednesday statement, and also questioned the support for providing public funds to political candidates.

"My hope is that the message of my candidacy is that if you work hard, apply yourself, and be accountable, the doors of opportunity are open for everyone, including a small-town girl from Brooke County," Chafin said.

Justice Robin Davis, a Democrat and the only incumbent running, has loaned her campaign $210,000.

Davis' campaign had also raised $221,050 from contributors as of March 30, the most of any of the Supreme Court candidates, while Chafin received $138,698 from donors.

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Follow Lawrence Messina at http://twitter.com/lmessina

 


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