By CURTIS JOHNSON
HUNTINGTON -- A retired circuit judge, with 32 years of public service, wants to be Cabell County's next state senator.
John Cummings announced his intention to seek the Democratic Party's nomination during a recent interview with The Herald-Dispatch. He plans to officially file for office by midweek.
Cummings, 64, will face incumbent, two-term state Sen. Evan Jenkins. Huntington resident Charise Lindsey also filed pre-candidacy papers to challenge Jenkins for the party's nomination. No Republicans filed paperwork indicating a run for the seat.
Jenkins, first elected to the House of Delegates in 1994 and to the Senate in 2002, said he looks forward to the campaign. Voters have re-elected him to office in 1996, 1998 and 2006.
"That's the democratic process," Jenkins said of competition. "I like the fact that campaigns are about choices between candidates."
Cummings looks to enter the race one year after he retired from the bench. He stepped out of the courtroom with 32 years experience as judge and prosecutor in Cabell County. The University of Tennessee law school grad believes the state Legislature provides him a chance to make law, instead being solely concerned about its interpretation and enforcement.
"I've just always been somewhat interested in the legislative process," he said. "I want to have some input in helping the state move forward."
A run for the Legislature was not Cummings' reason for leaving the bench. He said he first pondered the idea about five months ago. He has since received verbal encouragement from would-be supporters, he said.
Cummings described himself as a more liberal alternative to Jenkins. The retired judge said he worries about a movement afoot to close the courts to plaintiffs, through methods such as absolute caps on civil awards. Cummings said he doesn't like frivolous lawsuits, but he doesn't believe the state's tort system should be regulated by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or and Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
Those concerns include some aspects of malpractice reform, a feather in the cap of Jenkins. The incumbent believes reforms passed in the last decade brought the local health care center from the "brink of collapse." He and others believe frivolous lawsuits were driving doctors out of the community.
"The very positive results are clearly apparent," Jenkins said. "I would be disappointed, and I think it would put the citizens of our region at risk to have representation that would turn the clock back."
Cummings cast himself as a candidate more friendly to labor unions and environmentalists, although he said coal production is critical to the state's economy.
"I'm not saying (Jenkins) has ignored them, but I don't think he has taken a stance that I think is correct," Cummings said. "His scope is not a traditional Democratic scope, but a very conservative scope. He has represented the (West Virginia State) Medical Association very well, but I don't think he has represented John Q. Citizen well."
Jenkins described himself to be a mainstream moderate. He defended past work in education, economic development and infrastructure. He said his time in Charleston has allowed him to build relationships needed to have a positive influence on the region.
The incumbent also made reference to Cummings' recent retirement, which could enable Cummings to earn another salary all while collecting his judicial pension.
Cummings acknowledged victory would allow him to receive another paycheck, but said state law bars him from collecting a second pension. The retired judge compared his situation to that of anyone collecting a second salary, such as retired military serviceman or Jenkins himself, who receives legislative pay and compensation as the director of the state Medical Association.
Cummings said his candidacy should not be seen as him condemning anyone or anything. The retired judge just believes he brings a more liberal slant to the Senate.
"I don't consider it a bad label," he said.
Jenkins officially filed for office Monday. Cummings first had to resign his position as senior status judge in West Virginia.
The filing period for state office continues through Jan. 30.
By CURTIS JOHNSON