MORGANTOWN – Losing the closest attorney general’s race in state history three years ago may help Hiram Lewis stand out in a crowd of Republican competitors during the 2008 race.
But the Morgantown attorney says he just wants what’s best for the state, and that includes anyone beating incumbent Darrell McGraw.
“I learned from the last experience that you really don’t want too heavily contested of a primary,” said Lewis, who recently formed an exploratory committee gather information on fundraising and public supporters. “I don’t think it’s good for the party as a whole.
“It’s hard for the survivor of the primary to go on and defeat an entrenched Democrat, especially in this state where the Democratic party reigns supreme.”
And it’s especially difficult, he added, for anyone to compete with McGraw’s cash flow that originates from lawsuit settlements and trial lawyer contributions.
So Lewis, a former Army Ranger and JAG office in the Army National Guard, says he’s still inviting information from those who want to toss their names in the Republican hat with the hopes of finding the best candidate to battle the four-term Democrat. Don’t mistake him though — Lewis thinks he is the best option right now.
“I’m trying to remain open and flexible if other people want to get their name out there,” Lewis, 36, said. “I want it to be a larger decision — that’s why I’m still soliciting input on who would be the best to take on the attorney general.
“I do think, with my past experience in the closest attorney general’s race in history, that helps. At that time, I wasn’t able to raise the money I can raise now. I think that gives me a lot better chance.”
McGraw succeeded in 2004 with a 5,000-vote advantage. This slim margin, Lewis said, came despite an extreme monetary disadvantage.
Having spent only approximately $70,000 on his campaign, Lewis said McGraw spent more than $1 million that came from lawsuit settlements gained on behalf of the state on his.
Also, private practice trial lawyers who were appointed special assistant attorneys general for the purpose of representing the State in certain lawsuits became contributors to McGraw’s campaign, as was the former West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association (now called the West Virginia Association for Justice).
The appointment of trial lawyers to special assistant attorneys general is a practice Lewis will end in the state.
“There’s a big problem in that there is an opportunity for abuse,” Lewis said. “I believe that it is a de facto violation of campaign finance law. A lot of the special assistant attorneys general are also contributing to the WVTLA, or whatever it is called. I think they spent over $1 million dollars against me last time around.
“That is a definite abuse of the legal system, the campaign finance system, and it’s basically bribery at the highest levels of state government.
“We have the same problem with lawsuit settlements and the abuse that is possible with that. It is well-documented that he spent over $1 million from lawsuit settlements against me. I would terminate both of those practices, as I believe they are unconstitutional. I believe somebody needs to reign him in.”
And Lewis hopes that someone is him. He also thinks the office needs to turn over settlement funds to the Legislature.
McGraw has come under fire because of his $10 million settlement reached in 2004 with Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the prescription drug OxyContin. McGraw never turned the money over to the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources, the agency he claimed was harmed by the drug’s addiction capabilities.
Instead, the money went to various projects around the state, including $500,000 to a pharmacy school at the University of Charleston.
Lewis also said McGraw should have been more worried about prosecuting those illegally abusing the drug.
“In this state, I think our crime — as far as drug offenders, sex offenders going unpunished on a daily basis — I think we need to crack down on the (methamphetamine) labs and crack cocaine use, and even the OxyContin,” said Lewis, who said he would like to model the office after Delaware’s because it is tougher on crime and not as worried about bringing lawsuits against companies.
“I’ve seen some of my clients, the impact (OxyContin) has on their families and the medical impact on the clients. It’s unbelievably addictive. It’s basically a time-released heroin and I believe the Attorney General shouldn’t be focused on the monetary aspect of settlements and more on getting it off the streets.”
And while McGraw hasn’t officially declared he will seek a fifth term, Chief Deputy AG Fran Hughes told The Record in January that McGraw does plan to do so.
Lewis said he foresees a rematch.
“I can’t imagine he wouldn’t, knowing the history of their family and their egos,” he said. “I don’t really care who my opponent is, what I want to do is change West Virginia for the better.
“That starts with changing the lawsuit climate in the state, and the best and most efficient manner of doing that is getting rid of the current Attorney General. We need someone who pursues just cases only and will work to create a business climate more conducive to economic growth.”
Lewis underwent an unsuccessful run at the U.S. Senate in 2006 and says his solo practice results in a wide array of fields, including criminal, family law, bankruptcy and commercial transactions.
“So far I haven’t taken a case that keeps me from sleeping,” he said.