Randy Yohe Published

Retiring W.Va. Commerce Secretary Reflects On Accomplishments, Challenges


West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Ed Gaunch will retire effective July 15.

The former state senator and longtime insurance agency CEO led the multi-bureau Commerce department for three and half years.

Government Reporter Randy Yohe spoke with the 75 year old Gaunch about his accomplishments and the challenges he sees for West Virginia moving forward.

Yohe: You’ve decided to retire from your position as Secretary of Commerce by saying it seems like the right time. I know you and your wife are dealing with some health challenges. How are you both doing?

Gaunch: Actually, we’re doing great. My wife likes to say we’re in good shape for the shape we’re in. But cognitively I feel great. I still feel like I have a grasp of everything. But I don’t have the stamina I once had and that kind of goes with my age. And I believe the state deserves somebody who can give it 100 percent.

Yohe: You ran for the state senate after a long and successful career in the insurance industry. What prompted you to run for political office?

Gaunch: I tried retiring once, at the end of 2004. But I didn’t do very well at retirement. And I think my wife got tired of me getting in the way. My habit was to get up, read the paper every morning, and listen to a news show. And invariably, I was saying something like, ‘when is somebody going to do something’? And one day, she said, ‘you are somebody and rather than wait for somebody else to do it, why don’t you try to do something’? So I did. I ran for the state senate and the rest is history.

Yohe: Many say they’ve learned much from you during your service to the state of West Virginia. What are some things that you learned about state government?

Gaunch: The primary thing I’ve learned is the broadly held misconception about state employees not working hard, not being good at their job, perhaps being lazy. Totally untrue. I know that among the agencies that report to me as Commerce Secretary, there are over 2,000 employees in that group. And I’ve found some of the most dedicated, best equipped and best workers that I’ve ever encountered.

Yohe: What about any challenges that you see still need to be accomplished under Commerce?

Gaunch: Occupational licensing is something that I’ve been very interested in, trying to remove obstacles that are in the way from young entrepreneurs, any entrepreneur actually being successful starting up a business in the State of West Virginia. Last time I looked, we had close to 200 boards and commissions that provide guidance for those businesses. Do we need 200 boards and commissions? Are we in fact placing obstacles in front of people that don’t need to be there? The other thing I’ve observed is kind of getting back to the basics when it comes to southern West Virginia – that we need to look at infrastructure in 2022. There’s no reason people shouldn’t be able to go into their kitchens and bathrooms and turn on a faucet and get clean running water. There’s no reason that people shouldn’t be able to flush with the understanding that what they’re flushing doesn’t go into the local creek or river.

Yohe: You are chair of West Virginia’s Public Energy Authority. And I believe you were tasked with developing the next generation of coal plants in West Virginia. Is there a viable next generation? Or do we truly need to continue working towards full diversification from a coal based economy?

Gaunch: We currently have, I believe, eight coal fired power plants still in West Virginia. And they provide most of the electricity that we consume here. So it’s important to us, not only for the jobs that they create on the sites of those eight plants, but for the coal miners who mined the coal and get it to those plants. The companies we’ve pursued to come to West Virginia, Nucor being one of the latest, it’s always a subject that they’re interested in alternative energy or at least providing a part of the energy necessary to run those plants. We’ve seen Toyota, for example, in Buffalo, establish their own solar array behind their facility. And so it’ll provide part of the energy they need. Problem is, the battery technology for alternative energy just hasn’t developed strong enough to take care of not just the baseload needs, but particularly the peak needs.

Yohe: As Commerce Secretary, what are your proudest accomplishments?

Gaunch: I’m obviously proud of the businesses we’ve been able to attract to the state of West Virginia. I’m proud of the businesses who have expanded their operations here in the state and hired more good West Virginians. I’m also proud of what I would call the cultural change that I think I brought, at least to the commerce agencies, where we play offense more than we play defense. In other words, I’ve tried to create an atmosphere where commerce can become a catalyst for change.

I hope I’ve left the Department of Commerce in a mindset and a situation where that culture has changed. That we continue to start to govern the state of West Virginia by looking through the windshield, and what’s positive, and what’s possible for us, as opposed to governing by looking through the rearview mirror.