Nobody doubts that Ken Hechler has been good for West Virginia. He's been a college professor, a congressman and has served at the highest levels of state government.
The question is whether Hechler, at age 90, is up for his latest endeavor: to become West Virginia's secretary of state. Again.
He held the job from 1985 to 2001. Before that, he was a congressman for 18 years, where he gained a reputation for fighting for the interests of blue collar mine workers.
The current race is tight, so the Democrat is spending about $1 million of his own money and crisscrossing the state in his trademark red Jeep Wrangler, adorned with Ken Hechler campaign signs and stickers. He sometimes drives the Jeep in parades, waving at crowds and occasionally jumping out to shake hands with admirers.
Born on New York's Long Island, Hechler worked as a speechwriter for President Truman before coming to West Virginia to teach at Marshall University. He was the only congressman to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala. He's written several books, including one about a World War II mission called "The Bridge at Remagen" that was made into a Hollywood movie.
With so many accomplishments, why is he running again?
"I have a yen for public service," he said. "And I'm a teacher primarily. I got into politics in order to be a better teacher. I think there are many, many unmet challenges here in West Virginia. I have the solution to a lot of them."
Hechler was already in his 30s when his current opponent was born. Betty Ireland is a businesswoman who, if she wins, would be the first woman ever elected to the executive branch of West Virginia state government. Ireland, 58, says she's not making her opponent's age an issue in this campaign.
"This is not about age. It's got nothing to do with age," she said, but adds that people she meets are talking about it. "I think people as a whole feel that maybe it's time for someone else to come in. That it's time for maybe Ken to move on and be our senior statesman."
Hechler insists that "it isn't the years in your life, it's the life in your years that really counts. I know a lot of people who are 30 years of age who are over the hill, both intellectually and physically. And I feel real good. I swim everyday, eat balanced diet and sleep well. And I'm up to the job because I think I can do it. I feel good every day when I get up to get out there to fight."
Buying His Way Into Office?
Ireland accuses Hechler of trying to buy his way back into office. She says he's ignoring a voluntary pledge he once made to limit campaign spending.
"Now that he's out, and he's trying to get back in, he's blown those limits," Ireland said. "The reformer has turned against the reforms."
Hechler said he's simply trying to get his message out.
"I have to spend some money to respond to attacks on my record," he said. "These days, television costs a great deal to buy a 30-second commercial."
Chris Stirewalt, political editor of the "Charleston Daily Mail," said that Hechler's spending, combined with ongoing investigations into widespread voting fraud in West Virginia, has cast new light on the race for secretary of state.
"Very few people seem to be upset about his age," Stirewalt said. "But the concept of somebody running for the state's chief elections officer and spending a million dollars on an office that pays considerably less? I think people have some concern as to why somebody would go to such lengths to do it."
Up for the Job?
West Virginians seem split on whether Hechler is up for the job.
"I don't think people should be limited by age in being able to function in whatever capacity," said Miriam Conroy, who notes that she'll soon be a senior herself. "As long as they're capable, I think they should be allowed to serve."
"It's a little bit unusual to be about 90 years old and running for office," said David Moye, who is in his late 70s. But, he adds, "we can't condemn someone because they're old and in fairly good health. That would be wrong."
"I think he's a little elderly," said Jane Merritt, who is in her mid-60s. "I think it's time for him to retire and go home."
Hechler plans to do anything but. And if he wins the election, he'll be 94 when his term ends.
"One of the state senators told me the other day that he wanted very much to run for secretary of state," Heckler chuckled. "And he's gonna support me because he knows I won't be there forever."