BUCKHANON, W.Va. — Libertarian West Virginia gubernatorial candidate Erika Kolenich says her decision to run was largely based on frustration with the state-level political climate and her desire to make a difference.
“I never considered myself a politician,” she said. “I see a need for leadership and I feel that I can represent West Virginia during a very important time.”
Kolenich is joined on the Nov. 3 general election ballot for governor by incumbent Republican Jim Justice, Democrat Ben Salango and Mountain Party candidate Daniel P. Lutz Jr.
Kolenich is a 1997 graduate of Buckhannon-Upshur High School and West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she double majored in dramatic arts and political science. She then attended law school at the University of Akron.
Today she makes a living as a trial lawyer and is the managing member of Klie Law Offices, PLLC, a firm that focuses on employment litigation. She makes her home with her husband Karl and daughter Iris — a sophomore at West Virginia Wesleyan.
“I spent some of my time growing up on Wheeling Island and then some in Buckhannon where I live today,” she said. “We were probably not quite middle class. My mom was a bartender when I was young and she ultimately owned her own business when I was in high school, and she was bitten by the business bug and has owned successful small businesses since then. She owns a convenience store and gas station now that I grew up working in.”
Attending college in her hometown, Kolenich worked in that store for her mother during her undergraduate years and said much of her work ethic comes from that experience.
She wanted to be either an actress or a lawyer, hence her double major.
“I had a reality-based conversation with my parents and they said they’d have a harder time supporting a struggling actress than a struggling lawyer, so that helped make my decision and I went to law school,” she said jokingly.
She took a full scholarship to the University of Akron School of Law. Her first work came in Wheeling, but she was doing work for Ohio, which is when she met her husband-to-be, who is from Cleveland.
“We wanted to get married and raise a family, and West Virginia seemed like a better place to do that, so we moved back to my hometown,” she added. “I started my own firm in 2005.”
Community driven, Kolenich is on the board of directors for the Head Start program in her area, she ran the community theater group for a number of years and served on a local commission for historic landmarks.
It was about two-and-a-half years ago when she began considering a run for office. Through her work, she saw the inner workings of state government, and her decision to step into the political ring was purely based on frustration with the system.
“As a trial lawyer, I spent a lot of time in Charleston down at the Capitol (Building),” she said. “When you start walking those halls and you see how things are really done and you see what happens in terms of lobbyists — and I’m not knocking lobbyists at all — but when you see the reality of what happens and these backroom deals and handshake things get made and you see how people from both sides get thrown out of caucuses if they weren’t voting the way party leadership wanted them to, it is frustrating.”
She added, “I became so frustrated in trying to knock on the door of the senator representing my district and being told that they’ve already decided on that (issue), but then they’d tell you how great they were — it really jaded me and made me sad to think that we elect these people to represent us.”
She said one of her biggest obstacles was pushing through her own concerns regarding public perception of her work.
“There was a time when I was really sensitive because I care about what folks think of me when they question my intentions, so I had to gather the mental fortitude to run for office,” she said. “This is something that I have to do and I feel like I have to make a difference. If I know that these things are going on and I don’t put myself out there, I’m just as much part of the problem. This has been a journey of self-growth and I realize that most of the time when people have something (negative) to say, it is because they may not understand the issue.”
Her journey to the Libertarian Party wasn’t one that occurred overnight. Kolenich said it took time for her to find herself politically. She said a portion of her unique perspective has come through her career.
“I don’t generally represent businesses, but if I do, they are small businesses that have found themselves embroiled in a situation regarding insurance coverage,” she said. “I think I have a real ability to relate to folks and realize what their problems are and how to talk to them. I grew up serving these people working in a convenience store, and I am one of them. They are people I can communicate with and I have the unique ability to understand them. I also have been involved in talking to legislators through my work. I feel like I have a feel for both ends through communications with our people and our government leadership and party leadership. I feel like I can bridge the gap between them.”
She added, “Most trial lawyers are Democrats by their very nature, so I’m in a unique position as a Libertarian to communicate with both sides and find some middle ground, which I feel is needed right now.”
Kolenich believes that state government could trim some budgetary fat in moving forward.
“There are many programs that everyday folks don’t know about,” she said. “One of them that I’m familiar with is the West Virginia Public Employee Grievance Board. It started as a way for state employees to have more rights than private-sector employees. It is a ridiculous program because of the way it interacts with civil law, it ends up giving less rights for the most part.”
She concluded, “If you have a state employee who wants to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination, they have to go through the grievance board first, even if it is a waste of time. I see people all the time who go through the steps of that and they waste the time and money including an administrative law judge. Normally the state entity has an attorney general there that is a paid state representative and a bunch of state employees who are paid to sit in a meeting room all day and talk about someone getting written up for something that could easily be dealt with in civil court. The process is a colossal waste of time, because it doesn’t function in the way in was originally intended. What happens is the intents of these programs get lost and they just grow and grow and nobody ever goes back to evaluate its effectiveness in relation to the original intent.”
Kolenich believes the effectiveness of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) should be evaluated.
“That entity’s function isn’t clear to me these days, other than to ensure that stores, bars and restaurants aren’t selling to underage kids, and they get an awful lot of budget with one division set up where the vendors have to purchase the wholesale product from. I don’t know why taxpayers must pay for something like that.”
She spoke about grant-funded programs and wasteful spending.
“Some of them are fantastic, but some of them can function on a lot less money,” she said. “You hear stories of there being money left in the budget so we’ll go buy new desks and chairs we don’t need because we’ll get cut next year if we don’t spend this money. That is all throughout government and it is wasteful. Everyone is worried about their budget getting cut, but the reality is, they are spending money that could either place elsewhere as people are always talking about education and roads or do what I’d like to do and leave that money in the pockets of the taxpayers. Struggling families need that money more than some government grant program needs $50,000 in new desks and chairs.”
Kolenich said family law initiatives, when carefully executed, can provide positive outcomes.
“Very often there needs to be something between a custody case and the abuse and neglect process,” she said. “There are families struggling who need simple intervention and with a little bit of help, it can save the state money in the long run. Those types of alternative justice are amazing.”
She concluded, “I am fond of the drug court program. I am an advocate for eliminating all victimless drug crimes. I don’t think possession should be a crime at all. If we aren’t going to eliminate those and people are going to be in court, the drug courts are an effective way to deal with those folks. Punishing someone and putting them in jail (for non-violent crimes) does not help anything. It doesn’t rehabilitate or recover. Inmates will tell you it is easier to get drugs on the inside than on the outside.”
The candidate spoke about the current state administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to West Virginia.
“It is hard to speak on that because we don’t know what information the administration had and whether the initial data they had was accurate,” she said. “With that said, there was a different way to handle it that would have been successful and what I would have done. We know that in terms of testing, a lack of testing was problematic. We didn’t have adequate testing. After the first few weeks of the pandemic we saw governors in other states threatening the FDA and saying that if they don’t approve the tests we’re bringing the tests in and getting our folks tested. Jim Justice never did that and I would have done that far earlier when I knew there were tests on the market and entered into contracts and got our people tested.”
She added, “They should have never ordered business shutdowns. They said that it makes more sense to go to Walmart where there are hundreds of people rather than to your local small shop to get a doughnut where you’d be exposed to two people. Our small businesses suffered because of that. We should have communicated accurate information to citizens and business owners and let them decide.”
Perhaps the biggest issue voters are concerned with in West Virginia is the future economic development of the state, retention of young, able workers and where that road will lead in terms of industry.
“We keep promising folks that we’re bringing coal back,” she said. “You can’t change the international market for coal. Even if you stripped away all of the regulations, you can’t change the international market. We make it harder in West Virginia for solar businesses and alternative power because politicians have gotten campaign donations from oil, gas and coal and they pay back these favors and we know that doesn’t work for West Virginia. We’ve sold our soul to out-of-state oil, gas and coal businesses for years. That clearly blew up in our face with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as we fell over ourselves to accommodate that and it was abandoned.”
The candidate believes that an open mind is the key to moving forward economically. She doesn’t believe that the recruitment of out-of-state or out-of-country manufacturers is the key to success.
“We give them land, we give them deals and we give them tax breaks,” she said. “What we need to do — and my plan is to look at the businesses we have and make it easier for them to operate — we need to make business more accessible for West Virginians and for people who choose to locate here. We must lift the regulations and requirements that hinder this. Florida recently did this and it is serving them well. Once you do that and people can get jobs and businesses are able to strive, that word will travel outside the state and people will choose to come here without us giving ourselves away. Let’s give those incentives to the people who choose to do business in West Virginia.”