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The executive branch of West Virginia state government is headed by the governor as chief executive and includes five other elected officers. The original constitution of 1863 stated that the ‘‘executive department shall consist of a governor, secretary of state, superintendent of free schools, auditor, treasurer and attorney general.’’ But there have been several constitutional changes. The secretary of state was an appointed office from 1872 until 1902, when voters amended the constitution and made it an elective office once more. The office of agriculture commissioner, an elective position, was created in 1911. The next change to the executive branch was approved by voters at the 1934 general election, adding the agriculture commissioner to the list. In 1958, voters removed the superintendent of schools as an elected state officer.

For more than 100 years, from 1863 to 1968, West Virginia was run by a weak governor, from the standpoint of powers granted by the constitution. Under both the constitutions of 1863 and 1872, the governor had to share his power with the other executives. He and they made up the Board of Public Works, which he chaired. The board was supposed to be interested primarily in works of internal improvement, including public lands and toll roads, but it evolved into the budget-making agency and became the most powerful executive agency in state government. Individual members would bargain with key legislators on appropriations for various agencies before final passage of the budget.

All that was changed in 1968 when voters ratified the Modern Budget Amendment. This shifted the budget-making power to the governor, making his office much stronger. Starting in 1969, the other members of the Board of Public Works had no voice in the preparation of the budget. The governor as chief executive decided how much tax revenue to put in the fiscal year estimate and then recommended how it was to be spent. The legislature could disagree on the expenditures but could not alter the estimates of revenue made by the governor.

Two years later, the voters ratified another amendment that allowed the governor to run for a second four-year term. Previously, each governor had been limited to one term, and had to sit out four years before being eligible to run again, although the other executive officers can serve as many successive terms as the voters will allow. Dr. David G. Temple, professor of political science at West Virginia University, measured the extent of the changes resulting from those two amendments and concluded that West Virginia had jumped from 45th in the nation in terms of relative strength of the governor to a position where no state was ahead of this one in veto or budgetary powers. Republican Arch A. Moore Jr., elected in 1968 as the state’s 28th governor, was the first beneficiary of both the increased budgetary controls and the two-term provision. He became the state’s first two-term governor by winning reelection in 1972 and later became the only person to serve three terms when he was elected as the state’s 30th governor in 1984.

By century’s end, two other governors had served eight years in succession. Democrat John D. ‘‘Jay’’ Rockefeller IV was chief executive from 1977 to 1984, and Gaston Caperton, also a Democrat, was elected to two terms, in 1988 and 1992. In 1996, Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood was elected to his second term, 40 years after his first. Underwood was elected the state’s 25th governor in 1956 at the age of 34, the youngest in state history, and then became the oldest governor at age 74.

Governor Joe Manchin was elected to a second term in 2008, but on November 2, 2010, he was elected to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Robert C. Byrd. Earl Ray Tomblin, who was president of the Senate, served as acting governor. In a special election on October 4, 2011, he defeated Republican businessman Bill Maloney for the right to serve the remainder of Manchin’s unexpired term, which by then had a little more than one year left. Tomblin was elected to another four-year term in 2012. Jim Justice has served as governor since 2017; elected as a Democrat, he switched his party affiliation to Republican less than seven months into his first term.

In contrast, some other state executive officers have served as long as 28 successive years. Edgar B. Sims of Harrison County was first elected state auditor in 1932 and was still serving at his death on June 20, 1960. More recently, Glen B. Gainer Jr. of Parkersburg served 16 years, and then his son, Glen B. Gainer III, was elected in 1992 and again in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. Two men have been secretary of state for 16 years each, William Smith O’Brien of Upshur County from 1933 to 1949 and Ken Hechler of Cabell County, a former congressman, who served from 1985 to 2001. The longest tenure for a state treasurer has been 18 years, when Richard E. Talbott of Barbour County served from 1932 until his death December 17, 1949. The longest stint as attorney general began in 1992 when Darrell McGraw was elected to the first of five successive four-year terms. But the record for time in the executive branch belongs to Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglass of Mason County, who was first elected to a four-year term in 1964 and served until 2012. The only break was the four years from 1988 to 1992 when Douglass made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.

This Article was written by Tom D. Miller

Last Revised on November 24, 2023


Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.

West Virginia Blue Book. Senate Clerk, State of West Virginia. Charleston, 1998.

Cite This Article

Miller, Tom D. "The Executive Branch." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 24 November 2023. Web. 25 June 2024.


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