West Virginia state Del. Joshua Nelson spent most of his first term learning to fly military jumbo jets in Texas, and almost none of it casting votes or pushing legislation 1,500 miles away in the state Capitol.
He came home about a week ago — his first trip back since Christmas — and on Tuesday the Air National Guardsman will put this question to voters: Does his military training make him a hero and outweigh his absent voice in the state Legislature?
“Right now, my job is serving the country,” Nelson told The Associated Press earlier this month. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Nelson is a fresh graduate from flight school at Laughlin Air Force Base. While in Texas, the Republican missed this year’s entire 60-day legislative session, including 494 votes. Last year, he wasn’t around for 367 of 460 votes due to Guard service.
It’s not a deal-breaker for some in Nelson’s district, which includes most of Boone County, a tight-knit mining community struggling in Appalachian coal’s downturn.
Nelson, a coal miner himself, has served in the Marines. He has been training on C-130s for the Guard’s 130th Airlift Wing.
“Anyone who’s willing to go out and take a bullet for his country deserves to be in office,” said Nancy Smith, of Madison.
Allen Dotson, a coal miner and Democrat from Danville, said he is irked by Nelson’s absence, even though he appreciates his service.
“He chose to be a pilot,” Dotson said. “I don’t think he even has the right to be on the ballot.”
Other lawmakers have left office to serve in the military. In the early 1990s, for instance, legislators in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Washington went to the Persian Gulf. In 2003, Florida state Rep. Carey Baker served in Iraq for more than a year, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Nelson has collected $15,000 in legislative pay, plus $625 each month outside of session besides December, all of which he said he has donated to charitable causes. He attended a one-day special session in June 2013, and six combined days of meetings not in session in July and August 2013, which also earned him a few hundred dollars.
Nelson’s opponent, Democratic coal miner Barry Brown, has focused on his absence, but knows he has to tread lightly.
“I admire what he’s doing in the service and all that,” Brown said. “But all of us people in Boone County, as taxpayers, we need representation over there (in Charleston), too.”
A third-party Democratic group, Honest West Virginians, has been less subtle. They put Nelson’s headshot on a milk carton in a mailer that said, “Missing… have you seen this man?”
In 2012, Nelson became the first Republican House member from Boone since 1928, according to the clerk’s office. His void has meant one less reliable GOP vote in a chamber in which Democrats hold just a six-seat edge.
For example, Republicans tried to fast-track an abortion ban bill in February, and they could’ve used Nelson’s vote when the legislation became deadlocked. Ultimately, it did pass, but Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed it over constitutionality concerns.
Nelson’s race has been bitter. The Democratic group, Honest West Virginians, has spent about $40,000 in support of Brown while business-leaning groups have paid for about $5,600 in third-party messages to help Nelson.
The Boone County GOP made its own noise about Brown’s record, bringing up his 2005 arrest for DUI in a state vehicle while he was a state liquor inspector.
He was found not guilty after his lawyer argued the tobacco he had in his mouth influenced Breathalyzer test results, according to media reports.
Nelson has received other help while he has been away. Fellow Republicans and his dad have campaigned for him.
Boone County GOP chairman Joe McCormick called Nelson an “All-American, God-fearing, good old boy who loves Boone County.”