Elected West Virginia’s 33rd governor in 2000, Robert Ellsworth ‘‘Bob’’ Wise Jr. was born January 6, 1948, in Washington, D.C. He grew up with his parents and two sisters in the Kanawha Valley, where his father worked for 30 years for McDonough Caperton Insurance Group. After graduating from George Washington High School in Charleston in 1966, Wise enrolled at Duke University, receiving a B.A. in 1970. After leaving Duke, Wise applied to law school and took a job in the interim as a mental health facility aide in California, relocating to Texas when he was accepted by the University of Houston. He transferred from Houston to the Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans, and worked nights as a waiter while earning a J.D.
Upon graduating in 1975, Wise returned to Charleston and opened a law practice. As a young lawyer, he represented coal miners in workers compensation cases, created a property tax reform group known as West Virginians for a Fair and Equitable Assessment of Taxes (FEAT), and became involved in community redevelopment efforts on behalf of victims of the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster and the devastating Mingo County floods of 1978.
Wise ran for public office for the first time in 1980, challenging state Senate President William T. Brotherton Jr. in the Kanawha County Democratic primary. As a political newcomer, Wise displayed a colorful campaign style including a willingness to jump on stage at rallies and clog for voters. With the support of the West Virginia Education Association and other labor organizations, he upset Brotherton in the primary and went on to win the November election.
Two years later, during a national economic recession, Wise decided to run for Congress. After leading a crowded field in the Democratic primary, he defeated incumbent Republican Mick Staton in November with 58 percent of the vote. He handily won the next 10 elections for the House of Representatives, including an unopposed race in 1990, with majorities in his contested races ranging from 64 percent in 1994 against Republican Samuel A. Cravotta to 74 percent in 1988 against Republican Paul W. Hart. Wise’s electoral success was attributed to his tenacious constituent service and his maturation in office as a consensus builder with considerable political skills. The Second Congressional District Wise represented is among the largest east of the Mississippi, stretching from the Ohio River to Harpers Ferry. As a member of Congress, Wise held leadership posts including at-large whip, regional whip, and parliamentarian. He became a ranking member of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, a position that enabled him to help secure federal assistance for West Virginia road projects. West Virginia’s senior senator, Robert C. Byrd, once referred to Wise as ‘‘a steam engine with britches.’’
While serving in Congress, Wise met and married the former Sandy Casber, who at the time was counsel to the House ways and means committee. They have a son, Robert, and a daughter, Alexandra.
After 18 years in Congress, Wise returned to West Virginia to run for governor in 2000. In the Democratic primary, he defeated Jim Lees of Scott Depot with 63 percent of the vote. The challenge facing Wise in the general election was more formidable, with the Republican incumbent, Cecil Underwood, running for reelection at a time when the state was tilting toward the GOP in the presidential race. Wise campaigned on themes including reviving the state’s sluggish economy, expanding college opportunity, improving access to health care benefits, and promoting the state’s energy industry while addressing environmental concerns. In a closely contested race, Wise outpolled Underwood 324,822 to 305,926, winning just over 50 percent of the vote compared with 47 percent for Underwood and 3 percent for minor candidates.
Wise was sworn into office as governor just after midnight, January 15, 2001, before a gathering of friends and family including his wife, who held the Bible while he took the oath administered by Circuit Judge Dan O’Hanlon of Huntington. At his inauguration later the same day, Wise pledged to put ‘‘cooperation over confrontation’’ and ‘‘practical ideas over ideology’’ in seeking improvements in education and health care while achieving economic gains and protecting the environment. Wise’s crisis management skills as chief executive were tested early by severe flooding which caused widespread destruction. Credited for his leadership in handling the situation, he worked with the legislature to advance his agenda, including the funding of PROMISE college scholarships for all students at West Virginia colleges with at least a B average in high school and college; expanded enrollment in the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); tax incentives for job growth and research and development investment; and prescription drug assistance for senior citizens.
With the nation’s economy slowing further, Wise faced increasing fiscal pressure midway through his term. In addition to demands on state revenue for such perennial needs as teacher salaries and other school expenses, road maintenance and construction costs, and the state’s general operating budget, West Virginia sought ways to continue infrastructure improvements, to address unfunded liabilities in its workers compensation insurance system, and to reduce the cost of its other long-term debt. In his State of the State address to the legislature, January 8, 2003, Wise called for a 10 percent budget cut and other measures to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. Among the other issues prominent during Wise’s administration were mountaintop removal mining practices, permissible weights for coal trucks operating on the state’s highways, and rising medical malpractice insurance costs.
In December 2002, Wise was elected chairman of the Southern Governors Association, the first West Virginian to lead the nonpartisan organization. As a result, Charleston was designated to host the governors’ annual meeting in 2003 for the first time in 40 years.
The West Virginia political landscape shifted abruptly in the spring of 2003, when Governor Wise issued a statement admitting that he had been unfaithful in his marriage. As the controversy surrounding the affair continued, he announced the following August that he would not seek reelection as governor in 2004. In 2005, Wise accepted a job in Washington as president of a nonprofit advocacy group founded to improve the nation’s high schools.
Read Gov. Wise’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Larry Sonis
Last Revised on May 16, 2016
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1990.
Bob Wise Celebrates his Victory. Charleston Gazette, 11/3/1982.
Cauchon, Dennis. Forging Alliances with Little Flash. USA Today, 11/8/2000.
Eyre, Eric. Candidates Differ on School Consolidation. Sunday Gazette-Mail, 10/8/2000.
O'Hanlon, Dan. the hq interview. Huntington Quarterly Magazine, (Winter-Spring 2001).
Cite This Article
Sonis, Larry "Bob Wise." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 16 May 2016. Web. 24 March 2017.