CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For someone who has served in the Legislature for more than 35 years -- including the past 25 in the high-profile positions of Senate Finance Committee chairman and Senate president - Earl Ray Tomblin remains something of an enigma.
"Earl Ray is an exceedingly private person," said Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, who came to the Senate in 1983, two years after Tomblin.
"I've known him as long as anybody in the Senate. I've probably watched more 'Jeopardy!' with him than anybody," Chafin added, referring to Tomblin's obsession with watching the quiz show each evening - and more often than not, answering the questions ahead of the contestants.
There's an old saying that the easiest way to get injured at the Capitol is to get between a politician and a TV camera - but that doesn't apply to Tomblin, a Logan County Democrat and the longest-serving Senate president in state history. Until recent years, Tomblin had been camera-shy, if not leery of the media, frequently exiting Senate chambers after floor sessions, before the press corps could reach him for interviews.
Chafin, D-Mingo, contrasted Tomblin with Gov. Joe Manchin, the man he will replace, at least temporarily: "Joe's all showmanship and what have you. Earl Ray is more quiet and behind-the-scenes."
He suggested that Tomblin prefers to choose his words carefully, rather than to make off-the-cuff comments.
"He's very careful not to tell you something and then not do it," Chafin said. "He doesn't want anybody to say that he lied, or didn't follow through, or wasn't completely truthful."
One Senate staffer described Tomblin as a rare politician who would rather listen than talk.
Former House speaker Bob Kiss, who worked with Tomblin as legislative leaders and Finance Committee chairmen, agreed.
"He and I would always joke that, at the [annual] Chamber of Commerce breakfast, they couldn't get me to shut up, and they couldn't get him to say anything," Kiss recalled.
"He's not a person, I think, who likes to give long speeches," Kiss said. "He's more of a nuts-and-bolts person, predicated on getting things accomplished."
"He's a listener and a thinker," said Becky Neal, who was Tomblin's legislative assistant from 1992 to 2003. "He'll bring everybody into his office who has an interest in an issue, and he'll listen to everyone around the table, and try to reach a consensus."
'Earl Ray Tomblin should be at the top of that list'
As one longtime Logan County politico who asked not be identified put it, he's known Tomblin for all his adult life, but doesn't really have a clue about him as a person.
In his home county, Tomblin is known as cordial and personable, but also as intensely private. For the most part, he keeps to himself at his family's secluded, gated homestead on a hillside on the outskirts of Chapmanville.
His avocations include gardening and riding the Hatfield-McCoy trails on his ATV.
He's not particularly active in community affairs in the county, the county official noted: "To the voters, he's more of an image than a person."
Likewise, not a lot is revealed about Tomblin's professional life away from the Capitol.
Tomblin's legislative biography identifies his profession as "self-employed businessman," and his financial disclosure to the state Ethics Commission lists his only employment, other than Senate president, as being general manager of Tomblin Rentals, an unincorporated business that handles various rental properties he owns in the Logan area.
In fact, the last "name" business Tomblin worked for was the family-owned Southern Amusement Co., a vending machine company that was one of the state's largest distributors of so-called "gray" video poker machines prior to legislation in 2001 legalizing limited video lottery statewide.
Tomblin left Southern Amusement in December 1994, after being nominated for Senate president in the Senate Democratic caucus.
During his first session as Senate president, critics accused Tomblin of scuttling a bill that would have legalized riverboat gambling in the state, claiming that he was trying to protect the family's "gray machine" interests.
Later that year, the Tomblins sold Southern Amusement to Joe C. Ferrell, a former state delegate from Logan County who pleaded guilty to racketeering and tax charges in federal court last month.
During that period, Tomblin also was dogged by accusations regarding the state Greyhound Breeders Development Fund. The fund, intended to bolster the state's then-new greyhound racing business, used 1.5 percent of what initially was a minimal amount of revenue from the then-newly introduced racetrack video lottery machines, to enhance purses for winning greyhounds at the state's two dog tracks.
However, with the explosion of video slots at the state's racetracks in the early 1990s, the fund quickly topped $3 million a year, with top breeders - including Tomblin Kennels, owned by Tomblin's mother, Freda - claiming prize money exceeding $300,000 a year.
Tomblin insisted throughout that he had no involvement in the breeders' fund legislation, or in the kennel.
Likewise, eyebrows were raised in 1999, when the state college governing board of the time selected Tomblin's wife, Joanne, as president of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, even though she was one of only two applicants out of a field of 39 without a doctoral degree.