West Virginia Race Sees A Perot-Style Campaign

State Senator Pritt is a reluctant write-in candidate for governor

BY all traditional measures, the West Virginia race for governor is a two-man affair between a Democratic and a Republican millionaire.

Then there's Charlotte Pritt.

She has no political backing from state organizations, no campaign money. Ever since losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Ms. Pritt, a state senator, hasn't even run for the post. Yet her supporters have created for her a Ross Perot-style write-in campaign for governor.

Unlike the one-time presidential candidate, Pritt is no billionaire, has held elective office, and holds staunchly liberal views. Like him, she appeals to an alienated electorate.

"It does represent a significant movement in West Virginia of people who are kind of fed up with politics as usual," says Allan Hammock, chairman of the political science department at West Virginia University.

"There are a large number of people who are disaffected with the political process. They feel that there's an alien force that's taken over the whole political process," adds secretary of state Ken Hechler.

Frank Young is one of the disaffected. A registered Republican who lost two races for the state legislature, he now serves as treasurer for the Write-In Pritt Campaign.

"We in West Virginia as a whole have been exploited by energy and land-holding companies for 100 years," he says. "There are those of us, including Charlotte Pritt, who think there's more to life than taking the crumbs of prosperity that dribble off the sides of coal trucks."

Pritt has won awards for her work on labor, environmental, women's, and disabled people's issues. She was drafted for the governor's race a year ago at an environmental conference she did not attend.

"They had to drag me kicking and screaming into this race. I'm a poet, not a politician," she says. She is working on a doctorate at Ohio University.

She ran, however, in the state Democratic primary, getting 35 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Gov. Gaston Caperton won with 43 percent.

Now Pritt supporters, who have already set up the write-in campaign, are urging her to run as a write-in candidate in the general election. She has gone back and forth on the issue, but it sounds as though she will endorse those efforts. "I feel I represent people who have no choice anywhere else," she says.

It's highly unlikely she can win, however. Political observers say write-in campaigns are extremely difficult, especially in West Virginia. The campaign itself is loosely organized. Besides Mr. Young, who owns a garage and towing service, the write-in campaign is headed by a retired state trooper and a free-lance photographer. To reach their candidate, they leave messages on her answering machine.

In comparison, Governor Caperton's campaign is a well-oiled machine. On Monday morning he opened a campaign headquarters in downtown Beckley, W.Va., then visited a nearby black neighborhood and coal mine in his Winnebago. He dismisses the write-in campaign as irrelevant.

His Republican opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Cleve Benedict, is trying to woo Pritt's supporters. He calls himself the "practical alternative" to Caperton. Both he and Caperton are wealthy businessmen.

Caperton is expected to win reelection. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. Caperton has steadied the state's fiscal situation, trimming the payroll of full-time state employees 3.5 percent and raising revenues 25 percent. Bond-rating agencies have moved the state's ranking up a notch after downgrading West Virginia twice in the 1980s. (Its long-term credit rating still ranks among the lowest five states.) Caperton has also boosted average teacher pay by some $6,000, moving the state from 49th to 35t h.

To do these things, Caperton made tough decisions early in his first term. He raised state taxes $400 million after running a no-new-taxes campaign. Before handing out teacher pay raises, he presided over West Virginia's first statewide teachers' strike.

Some voters are bitter about the tax increases. Mr. Benedict has made an issue of them, promising to cut in half the state's sales tax. He has yet to detail where the resulting $300 million in cuts would come.

Nevertheless, Caperton has mended fences with many statewide organizations. After sitting out the primary, the West Virginia Education Association endorsed him. So have several labor unions, even though Caperton opposes collective bargaining for public employees.

Last month, the West Virginia Poll showed Caperton leading Benedict 42 to 35 percent (with Pritt support uncounted, as she is not officially running.) But "we're awfully early in the campaign," says Troy Stewart, a political science professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.