CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson announced Thursday that he would resign next month to take a cabinet post in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration. By the end of the day, several prominent House members were positioning themselves to fill the speaker's chair.
At a Thursday morning news conference, Tomblin announced that Thompson would be the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Assistance. He will replace Keith Gwinn, who said he's leaving the post for health reasons.
Tomblin said he and Thompson had talked "over the years" about "what his future would be," and the governor believes Thompson is a good choice to succeed Gwinn.
"He is a veteran. He's very passionate about doing all he can to help veterans in the state," Tomblin said. Thompson served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1974, and was on "standby reserve" until 1978, according to a news release. He was a military policeman during his Army service.
Thompson said he had not anticipated joining the Tomblin administration, but said of the appointment, "This is truly an opportunity that doesn't come along every day."
"I believe I can do a lot of good for those who deserve it. This is a perfect fit for me," he said.
Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat, said his top priority will be locating a second state veterans' nursing home in the Beckley area. The state's only current veterans' nursing home is in Harrison County.
Thompson ran for governor in 2011 and finished second to Tomblin in a six-way Democratic primary.
Consensus among House members Thursday was that there are four leading candidates to succeed Thompson as House Speaker: Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo; Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison; and Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.
Skaff, a Charleston businessman first elected in 2008 and best known for negotiating a House redistricting agreement that led to the breaking up of the old seven-member 30th District, said he believes he is the front-runner in the race.
"I think its time for a fresh new face in the House," said Skaff, who said he believes he has commitments from 18 to 22 of the House's 54 Democrats, with 28 votes needed to win the nomination in the House Democratic caucus.
Skaff said he would be better able to work cooperatively with the House's 46 Republicans.
"I'm a middle-of-the-road guy," he said. "I work well with Republicans. ... The House needs somebody like me who can work with both sides of the aisle."
Skaff said last month he was considering a run for Congress, for the seat now held by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is giving up that seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
Boggs, who has served 17 years in the House, including the past five as majority leader, said he is interested in being speaker, then announced it on his Twitter account.
He said it is vital that the House have a smooth, seamless transition, given that the Legislature is in the middle of its 81st term.