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Down the stretch Compton's challenger sees this race as

Published: Sunday, October 27, 2002
Page: P1B
Byline: Tara Tuckwiller LEWISBURG - Veteran House leader Mary Pearl Compton, D-Monroe, has been called "the conscience of the House of Delegates" by the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.

Two groups who normally don't agree on anything - doctors and trial lawyers - both support her. So do West Virginia's ultra-powerful unions and teachers. For 14 years, the retired schoolteacher everyone at the Capitol refers to simply as "Mary Pearl" has become accustomed to breezing through elections.

Not this year.

"If there's ever going to be a year to win this election, this is it," said Jesse Guills Jr., the Greenbrier County Republican and lawyer who is giving Compton a serious fight in her race for the Senate.

Guills has never held public office. He said he got "frustrated" last winter as he watched the Legislature fritter away without solving issues he sees as important: tort reform and taxes, for two.

He said voters need a new choice.

"[Compton] and I are just about complete opposites on every issue," Guills said. "So they definitely have a choice." 'The most important race in the Senate' Compton, as the House's health and human resources chairwoman, has been involved in what she calls "people issues" - health insurance for children, meals for senior citizens.

She'll speak out on just about anything, though. She's made impassioned speeches in favor of strong environmental regulations and campaign finance reform.

The West Virginia Citizen Action Group has called Compton's race "the most important race in the state Senate." "Compton is a no-nonsense champion of the 'little guy' that will stand up to the good ol' boys in the Senate to promote legislation benefiting the average West Virginian," CAG Director Norm Steenstra has said.

Compton said she simply gives her honest opinion, "which, in political realms, sometimes gets me in trouble." You wouldn't know it from her endorsement list. Two teachers' unions, eight other unions, bankers, lawyers, seniors, veterans, doctors, dentists, nurses, hospitals and the Monroe County Farm Bureau.

The organization most likely to speak out against Compton is the state Chamber of Commerce.

In the May primary, the Chamber endorsed incumbent Sen. Leonard Anderson, D-Summers.

Compton beat Anderson - barely.

A lawyer who supports tort reform If you liked Leonard Anderson, the Chamber of Commerce says, you'll like Jesse Guills.

Leonard Anderson voted against stricter pollution standards for industry. He tried in vain to limit punitive damages in West Virginia lawsuits to $250,000. He was a "Democrat for Underwood." Guills has built his platform on two main issues, which he says keep jobs out of West Virginia: s Tax reform. Guills wants to cut corporate taxes, business franchise taxes, the sales tax and the gasoline tax.

Although he originally opposed a higher tobacco tax, he supports it now that he knows more about the sorry state of Medicare and the taxpayer costs associated with tobacco use.

"Only if it's used to deal with the Medicare deficit, and health-care matters only," he said s Tort reform. Guills calls it "probably the most critical thing that needs to be done" for West Virginia's economic development.

"It's an obstruction to a business-friendly environment." Guills wants to limit punitive damages, among other things. That would ease malpractice premiums for doctors, and reduce homeowners' and auto premiums for everyone, he said.

Tort reform is attracting a lot of voters to his side, Guills said.

"Public emotion is with the doctor issue," he said.

Solving West Virginia's health problems Compton said she can look down the road and see that tort reform alone isn't going to solve West Virginia's health-care problems s West Virginia is the most obese state in the nation, Compton said, largely because people don't have the money or the education to choose the most nutritious foods. Obesity aggravates diabetes, which results in "overwhelming" costs for taxpayers, she said.

"It's costing taxpayers millions of dollars to treat eyes, amputations," she said s Many West Virginians have no health insurance. When they go to the emergency room, doctors can't turn them away. So the hospitals charge more for insured patients to make up for it, Compton said.

"It's also costing PEIA and Workers' Comp," she said.

"At some point, I'd like to see every West Virginian have health insurance coverage. I know that's a long way off, and it's going to cost a lot of money." s Tobacco has sickened many West Virginians. High rates of heart and lung disease drive up health-care costs, which drive up taxes and insurance premiums, Compton said.

"The tobacco companies have made it so addictive that these people are hooked," she said. "West Virginia needs to spend about $14 million on tobacco prevention, helping our citizens get off tobacco products." The national Centers for Disease Control recommended the $14 million figure. West Virginia currently is spending $6 million on tobacco prevention, Compton said. She would like to use tobacco settlement money to make up the difference.

She doesn't think the Legislature will ever pass a sizeable tobacco tax increase.

State Bar discipline and 'unacceptable' signs Compton and Guills, although they disagree on just about everything, debate each other respectfully. Behind the scenes, it's a different story.

Compton supporters say they've torn down signs that read, "Mary Pearl Compton Murders Unborn Babies." They attribute the signs to anti-abortionists who support Guills. Guills has said he did not authorize the signs, calling them "offensive and completely unacceptable." Meanwhile, Compton supporters have brought to light a 5-year-old case in which Guills was admonished by the State Bar for failing to keep a client adequately up-to-date on a case, then repeatedly ignoring the Bar's request for information about it.

It was the third time Guills had been disciplined for failing to respond to ethics complaints. While it admonished Guills, the Bar noted several mitigating factors, including the fact that Guills' mother-in-law recently had been diagnosed as terminally ill, and his handicapped brother-in-law was suffering serious medical problems.

The Bar noted that Guills "is an honest, trustworthy, respected and capable trial lawyer who has built and maintained a solid reputation for integrity and truthfulness among his friends and fellow attorneys." Guills could not be reached Friday to comment.

As for money, Guills and Compton had spent about the same amount on the fall campaign as of Oct. 15 - $16,600 for her, $12,200 for him.

Compton has spent about three times more than Guills all year, but she spent most of it on the primary.

"We're not going to get run over, money-wise," Guills said Thursday.

"We were worried about that." Compton has raised more than twice as much money as Guills - $141,000 to his $61,000. Compton got much of her money from unions - social workers, teachers, miners, carpenters, construction workers - and lawyers. One maximum contribution came from a prescription drug manufacturer in Indianapolis.

Guills, a political unknown, got contributions from farmers and executives - including maximum contributions from retired coal operator Lawson Hamilton and his wife, Jeanne, and $500 from coal and timber operator James "Buck" Harless.

Although Compton has no difficulty getting campaign contributions, she has said campaigns should be publicly funded.

"I hate begging for money to run a campaign," she has said. "We need to set an example for the rest of the country, like Maine and Arizona" on campaign finance reform.

Guills said he is not sure that campaigns should be publicly funded.

10th District has undergone changes True, Compton beat Anderson. And Guills matches Anderson's conservative philosophy.

But Anderson was at a disadvantage, being from tiny Summers County.

Greenbrier County - Guills' home turf - has more than twice as many voters as either Summers County or Compton's home county, Monroe.

Guills is fairly well known in Greenbrier County. He was born in Mercer County, but moved to Greenbrier at age 7. He has practiced law in Lewisburg for decades.

Greenbrier County had its own senator, Democrat Mark Burnette, until it was moved to the 10th District last year with Monroe, Mercer, Summers and part of Fayette County. Guills' campaign emphasizes that Greenbrier countians might want a native to regain the Senate seat.

"I think Greenbrier County is too vital to this state not to have representation in the Senate," he said.

Compton is confident that voters in the 10th District know her record, and they'll send her to the Senate.

"I don't really think [Guills] has the base," she said. "He has captured issues that are hot-button items, such as tort reform ...

"I want to continue with my interest in health care - insurance, prescription drugs and, in general, the cost of health care. Those are the interests of my constituency." To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.

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