By Steve Novotney
The other kids made fun of him because he lived in a trailer with his mother during his elementary school days, and at first Shawn Fluharty was embarrassed.
His parents, Doug and Mary Ellen Fluharty, divorced when Shawn was 3 years old. His father was a brand new union electrician, and his mother worked two jobs as a part-time teacher’s aide for special needs students and as a cashier at a Giant Eagle grocery store.
Today, though, the 30-year-old Fluharty is proud of his parents for the upbringing they afforded him for several reasons, one of which includes the fact his mother refused to collect public assistance. Instead she worked, and many days that involved a pair of shifts that ran consecutively from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.
He learned the blue-collar work ethic from his mother, yes, but also from his father, who consistently taught him about honing skills, caring about one’s craft, and working as long as necessary to complete a quality job. And Fluharty took that mentality with him when excelling at John Marshall High School and West Virginia University to earn his undergraduate and law degrees.
He paid his own way with student loans, earned several scholarships, and he also worked in the Morgantown area throughout his college years. Fluharty is now a practicing attorney and is employed by the Harris Law Firm in Wheeling.
Fluharty is a Democrat, and while he refuses to apologize for that choice, his views do stray away from traditional Democratic ideals when capital punishment is the topic. The reason for that stance is quite personal.
Near the end of his sophomore year at WVU he received several phone messages from his father one April afternoon. When Fluharty was finally able to call his father back, the shaken and muttering man on the other end could only stumble through a few words over and over.
“They’ll all dead. They’re all dead. Debbie, Buzz and Jonathan are all dead. They’re all dead.”
His aunt, uncle, and cousin (Deborah Fluharty-Conniff , 50, “Buzz” Coniff, 53, and son Jonathan Noon, 22) were murdered during a home invasion in one of the worst crimes in the history of the Upper Ohio Valley. His family members were bound, forced to the dwelling’s floor, lined up on their stomachs, and then all of them were shot in their home on Gashell Run Road in Ohio County.
The two perpetrators were later found guilty of first-degree murder and each received the maximum sentence allowable by West Virginia Law, life without mercy.
“Those cowards may be locked up for the rest of their lives, but they are still alive,” Fluharty said as his eyes welled up. “They got a break, as far as I’m concerned.”
Novotney: After two defeats in attempts to represent the Third House District in Ohio County, why did you decide to try a third time?
Fluharty: I’m not the kind of person who gives up on something just because you were unsuccessful at first. I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to believe if you really want something, you have to go get it, and I fully understood that it wasn’t going to be easy.
If you look at the numbers, I’ve made progress each time, and I had a lot of people in my corner encouraging me to run again. Some of our best politicians and top leaders have lost multiple times, so that’s why I ran again. I plan to be a leader in our community, whether it involves public service as a lawmaker or as a private citizen, so I didn’t see a reason not to run.
Novotney: Has there ever been a single moment following a previous defeat when you thought about not running again?
Fluharty: I was a little discouraged after losing in 2012, but at no point did I feel I should be done with politics. There are frustrations involved because I’m not good at playing the political games, and I don’t like playing the political games. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been successful, and that’s why I make my campaigns about the people. If it’s about the people and not just about making certain groups happy, I think I have a better chance at winning because I want to do what a lawmaker is actually supposed to do.
Novotney: So representing the people of the Third House District is your only motivation for running a third time in a row?
Fluharty: It’s about making a difference. The skills I have acquired during my life, I believe, are best suited for serving in the Legislature, so that’s why I feel it’s the best route for me.
If you look at my law practice, it’s not about representing big companies. It’s about representing the average person. I was raised in a blue-collar household. My father is an electrician, and my mother is a teacher’s aide in special education.
Novotney: Politicians often say they wish to make a difference, but seldom are those intentions defined. Please define your intentions.
Fluharty: I, unlike many other people who run for office, do my homework at an exhausting level. And I have the ability to speak my mind, and I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind separates me from the field, in my opinion.
If you line up 10 politicians of all parties and ask them a question, there’s a good chance you going to hear 10 similar answers. But I would be the guy who would give you an answer that’s completely different because I’m not going to offer an answer that everyone thinks they want to hear. My answer will be the honest answer. That’s what I would bring to the table.
Novotney: Do you feel you were too young when you first ran for the House of Delegates in 2010?
Fluharty: It was hard for many people to take me seriously the first time I ran for office, and that was because of my age, and, the fact I was trying to come out of nowhere. That’s why I had the “Flu Who” jingle because I knew no one really knew who I was.
Plus, I had just returned to the area, so no one really knew me on the personal level. In a countywide race people usually vote for the candidates they know.
Novotney: Tell me what lessons you have learned from the two ballot-box defeats.
Fluharty: I have learned to get out into my community more often and to not be afraid to walk about to people to talk with them. Before, I was too shy, but I have learned that the conversation has to continue.
I’ve also learned that no two people are going to agree on all of the issues no matter what political parties the two belong to, but voters want to know whether or not a candidate knows what they are talking about and to me it is worth the time to talk with as many people as possible.
Novotney: You knocked on a lot of doors and not just those owned by fellow Democrats. What concerns have been shared with you by the citizens with whom you have spoken?
Fluharty: People want to know in what direction our area is heading for the future. People want the gas and oil industries more defined than they are now, and that’s a multi-faceted issue. There’s the economic impact but also the health and environmental concerns.
They want to know what our infrastructure is going to look like in 20 years. They want to know the future of the severance tax on the fracking industry, and they want to know why more people are not working together to represent the people so we can be sure the people are properly protected.
Collectively, the Legislature hasn’t done the homework, and it’s something for the state government to do. It’s not up to city or county governments to do; it’s up to the state Legislature, and it’s not been done.
Novotney: During your first run for public office the Third District was still learning about the fracking industry, and at that time you said you would not favor coddling the industries in any way. Do you believe state lawmakers have addressed the issues concerning these industries in an appropriate manner?
Fluharty: I believe what the facts show, and the facts show that we are coddling this industry. There has been nothing proactive. It’s all been reactionary, and our state was guilty of the same thing when it has involved the coal industry. Our state lawmakers always wait until a tragedy happens until they do something about it on the legislative level.
They’ve done nothing to protect the people or the employees of the oil and gas industries, and our state government isn’t even collecting the income tax from those workers who have been here for at least 160 consecutive days. That’s not right. That’s absurd to me.
Novotney: While going door-to-door did you experience any negative reactions because you are a Democrat?
Fluharty: No, I didn’t, and I was concerned about that because of how ridiculous many campaigns have been this year. It was a hot-button issue that many people warned me about, but honestly I haven’t had an issue whatsoever about being a Democrat, and I have knocked on a lot of Republican doors.
It was more of an issue in 2012, and that was because President Obama was on the ticket. But our electorate is very intelligent, and they know he is not the issue anymore. I also believe they are craving representation, and they are frustrated. And they seem to be blaming the incumbents.
Novotney: In your opinion, what are the top five issues currently facing residents of the Mountain State?
Fluharty: The well-being of our citizens is a huge issue. Once again, the state of West Virginia ranks dead last in overall happiness because of the unemployment rate, the environmental issues, and several other factors. It’s been like that for more than 10 years now, and it’s something that has to change.
I believe public education needs to be at the forefront again. Based on a several studies our state has been in the bottom five for too many years and until the issue is brought back to the forefront again, nothing is going to improve. Without that improvement, we’re not going to change the perception of our state.
The state budget has to get on track. Dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget is ridiculous, in my opinion. Our lawmakers must get the state budget back in order, and that can take place if the severance tax is addressed again.
The severance tax currently collected by the state of West Virginia is well below the rates paid in other states. We could double it, and it would still not be close to the highest in our country. It should be raised so the across-the-board cuts made the last two years can be eliminated, services can get back to normal, and we can provide the people of our state an additional revenue source without it costing them a dime.
And the biggest issue I believe we are all facing in West Virginia involves the future of the gas and oil industries. Are we going to sit back and wait for the something tragic to happen before we react? Or are we finally going to be proactive to get out in front of this so we can diversify our economy?
Novotney: How will you gain the attention of state lawmakers who are not impacted by the fracking industries?
Fluharty: The rest of the state needs to care, and the rest of the lawmakers need to understand that if more money comes into the state, it will benefit them, too. They need to care about the cuts that have been made, and they need to care about finding ways for those cuts to be erased and the services returned to previous levels.
Novotney: Do you have legislation proposals you plan to present now that you have been elected by the people?
Fluharty: I will immediately propose raising the severance tax. That’s be No. 1 on my list for all the reasons I have already mentioned.
I would also like to do away with the tax breaks that are handed over to these companies. I don’t get the same tax breaks, and no other citizen of our state gets the kind of tax breaks these companies get. The gas is not going anywhere. It’s here. It’s ours, and we should be the ones benefitting.
Another piece of legislation I would propose is the decriminalization of marijuana. It’s absurd that we are spending such great amounts of money to incarcerate and ruin the lives of individuals deemed guilty of non-violent drug offenses. It’s absolutely absurd.
If it doesn’t make any dollars, then it doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re losing money hand-over-fist while other states are doing it for right reasons. In fact, the citizens of our state agree with me. If you go talk to the common person on the street, they are going to agree with me on that issue.”