The death of former Rep. David M. "Mick" Staton on April 14 brought back memories of the roles he played in making West Virginia a genuine two-party state and in enacting Ronald Reagan's historic tax and budget measures while in Congress.
Republican Staton, who died at 74 after a long bout with Parkinson's disease, came into the U.S. House when Reagan became president in 1980 and served only one term.
But as mourners at the Braddock Street United Presbyterian Church in Winchester, Va. — near Staton's Inwood, W.Va., home — recalled at services Monday, Staton's legacy in politics and his state's conservative movement transcended the relatively brief time he was in office.
Staton's life outside politics was not unlike those of many in his generation. He graduated from Parkersburg (W.Va.) High School, did a stint in the U.S. Army National Guard, married sweetheart Lynn Spencer, and became a father of two. He attended but did not graduate from Concord College — now Concord University, in Athens, W.Va., and worked in a variety of jobs, including as vice president of a local bank.
Staton was thrust into controversy in the 1970s when school authorities in Kanawha County approved textbooks that many parents considered salacious. With his resonant baritone voice, the handsome, pipe-smoking Staton seemed a natural spokesman for the parents, and in short order, a natural for seeking elective office.
In 1978, he carried the Republican banner against veteran Democratic Rep. John M. Slack in the state's Third Congressional District, and while losing, drew a never expected 43 percent of the vote.
In 1980, Staton suddenly found himself the Republican nominee in a "snap" special election following Slack's death in March of that year.
Democrats rallied behind Charleston's longtime Mayor John Hutchinson, and he edged Staton for the remainder of Slack's term.
"Just you watch: That guy will have the shortest congressional term in history!" Staton told this reporter days after his loss to Hutchinson.
Staton ran again in the November election. But with most national Republican committees and political action committees writing him off after he lost the special election, the candidate and wife Lynn had to go it alone. They tightened their financial belt at home to devote all resources to the campaign.
With help from a small group of friends, the Statons held coffee gatherings at various homes and tirelessly knocked on doors. Gallons of coffee, considerable shoe leather, and energy all helped Staton defeat Hutchinson in a stunning upset — even as Jimmy Carter was defeating Ronald Reagan in the Third District and throughout West Virginia.
When heads of political action committees would come up to Staton and apologize for writing him off in November, he would always reply with a smile: "You've got to believe!"
Staton believed very much in his political hero Reagan, for whom he announced the votes of West Virginia during the roll call at the Republican National Convention. Rated 100 percent conservative by the American Conservative Union, Staton voted with and worked tirelessly for Reagan's agenda.
In his memoir "Herding Cats," then-House Minority Whip Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, recalled advising Staton that some of his votes could endanger his re-election in 1982.
"I didn't come to Washington to win re-election," Staton replied.
He didn't. In 1982, Staton lost badly to Democrat Bob Wise, who would go on to become governor. Staton went to work as political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — "I want to help elect people who think like I do," he said — and later started his own consulting business with wife Lynn.
He never sought office again, but returned to the grass-roots organizing of politics, serving as chairman of the Berkeley County Republican Executive Committee. Lynn, his partner in so much, was vice chairman of the state Republican Party.
"Mick and I worked so hard, and so did a lot of other folks back then," former Republican Rep. Cleve Benedict of West Virginia, who came to the House with Staton in 1980 and lost a Senate race two years later, told Newsmax.
"And look today: We have a Republican attorney general, [W.Va. Rep.] Shelley [Moore Capito] is going to waltz into the Senate this year, and we just might win one house of the state Legislature."
West Virginia is much more of a red or conservative state today than it was 34 years ago. In many ways, that may be the most lasting memorial to Mick Staton.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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