MORGANTOWN — The 2020 legislative session will be the last for Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. He announced his decision to not seek reelection.
“I didn’t make it on the spur of the moment,” he said. “I struggled with it for months.”
Prezioso, 70, and Senate minority leader, has served for more than three decades, elected to the House of Delegates in 1988 and to the Senate in 1996.
Several factors played into his decision. One is the great red-blue divide. “It’s a different political environment than when I first started out,” he said.
“The whole political climate, the way it is now on the national level, filtering down to the state level, it’s just so venomous now, you just feel like you can’t get a lot accomplished. Nobody wants to compromise, nobody wants to talk,” he said. Compromise is viewed as a sign of weakness.
When he entered office, the state was in financial trouble, he said. People worked together across the aisle. “We accomplished a lot of things. Nobody got everything they wanted, but they got the best piece of legislation for the state of West Virginia. I just don’t see that happening anymore.”
Family life also played a role. He has a grandson now, and a granddaughter expected in March. And it’s harder now to be away from home during the winter months of the session. “All that stuff weighs on your mind.”
But the young Democratic senators are talented and work hard,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best groups that I’ve ever had to work with and I couldn’t be more proud to be minority leader.” When he leaves they’ll step up.
Prezioso believes he’s chaired more major committees than anyone in the Legislature, including Health and Finance. Not a lawyer, he never chaired Judiciary.
He never intended to stay this long, he said, but in dealing with series of financial crises, he was appointed to a succession of committee chairs and found his strong suit as a numbers guy. “I was in the eye of every storm.”
Those included fixing the debt-laden teacher and employee pension funds, Other Post Employment Benefits (retiree healthcare), and the skyrocketing costs of physician malpractice insurance that was driving doctors out of the state.
“I wasn’t afraid to do the work,” he said. “I was never afraid to put my nose in the tough issues. … I enjoyed working on those kinds of issues. We made a difference.”
During the 2020 session, Prezioso said, the Democratic caucus wants to deal with the opioid crisis and public education.
Prezioso, a retired educator himself who started as a Monongalia County schoolteacher at age 21, said they want to review the data from the Balanced Scorecard, released in September, and figure out what they can do as legislators to help makes students more successful.
Prezioso said he believes the drug and education problems stem from a common source. “I think it’s all related to the poverty issue.”
Last session, he said, the majority was able to push through school choice, but three charter schools won’t move the needle. Test scores won’t be better overall.
“We’ve got to look at the core issue of what it takes to raise test scores,” he said. That relates back to the drug epidemic, poverty, economic diversity and getting people employed – in solar power and natural gas jobs, for example. “We’re not going to be obstructionists. We’re going to be vocal when we think things aren’t right but we’re going to try to be proactive.”
Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, is Prezioso’ s 13th District colleague. Beach chaired Transportation when Prezioso chaired Finance under former Senate President Jeff Kessler.
“Roman’s one of those guys who for many years has set the bar high for all of us in the Legislature,” Beach said. “He’s a gentlemen and he’s an individual who comes to the floor or to committee well prepared. He knows the legislation that’s before him before he sits down at the desk. He’s a guy that we always, always leaned on during debate.”
On the Senate floor, Beach said, Prezioso could be seen in the middle of huddles on bills or at the podium during off-mic challenges to an action.
“He set that bar very high,” Beach said, “and he set a standard for the role of the minority leader, particularly. He made it his own.” And his successor will have big shoes to fill.
“Over his 30 years, he’s done a lot for Marion County and Mon County,” Beach said, “doing what he can to protect the budgets of the higher-ed institutions within our district ,” WVU, Fairmont and Pierpont.
“We’re thankful for this leadership. He’s taken 13-14 guys and really brought us all together.” They walk out of caucus pretty much all on the same page. “When we walk out of there, we’re a very congealed group of gentlemen.”
Despite the increased partisanship Prezioso referenced, senators across the aisle respect him.
That includes Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel. His 2nd District represents portions of Mon and Marion counties.
“I have tremendous respect for Roman,” Clements said. He’s known him from when they both served in the House.
“He’s an exceptional person,” Clements aid. “Thirty years is a long time to put up with the craziness that goes on down there in Charleston. He did a wonderful job. He had a tough job this past session, in trying to put his views and the views of the minority across. I think he did a pretty good job of it.”
And Clements agrees with Prezioso’s views on the need for compromise.
“We may agree or disagree on a lot of things,” Clements said. “But I think he had the right idea: If you go in on position unwilling to compromise, we’re not going to get the good of everything. On every piece of legislation, each side has a good point. And if we can get those points together, I think that means so much. Roman, I know, tried to do that.”
Prezioso made a point of thanking the residents of Marion and Mon counties for supporting him over the decades. He said he plans to tackle his final session with no less enthusiasm than he has his previous 30-plus. “My energy level hasn’t been diminished. I’m still sky high. I’m ready to go now.”
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