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Ralph Baxter Jr. may have a golden opportunity to enter politics now that West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise is not seeking re-election in 2004. Wise’s announcement last week that he would not pursue a second term left the field open to other Democrats interested in the governorship. The chairman of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a Democrat, has long been rumored to be interested in running for an elective office in the state. And Baxter seems to be positioning himself for a political career. Local politicians have lauded Baxter for bringing about 100 jobs to West Virginia with the opening of Orrick’s global operations center in Wheeling last year. He also recently purchased a house in the area where he and his family have spent the summer. And in another sign of his political interest, he is active with the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The dean of the school, who trains people for government careers, asked Baxter to join the executive committee of dean’s councils. But despite the political opening, Baxter said he has no intention of throwing his hat into the ring right now, though he didn’t rule out a possible bid in the future. “I am not interested in running for public office now,” Baxter said in a phone interview from Wheeling last week. Asked if he would seek office in the future, he said: “I don’t know the answer to that. I would not rule it out.” Baxter, who has been chairman of Orrick for the past 13 years, said he had promised the firm another three-year term if the partnership wanted him to stay at the helm. His current term ends at the end of 2004. “When I am done with this, I’ll consider other things,” he said. “I’ll have to consider if I’m right for public office and for doing the elements necessary for running for office. I have no doubt I would like to make a contribution.” Baxter said he has no experience in fund raising and campaigning, which would be a factor in deciding to seek office. But he has brought money into the state and has built a foundation for future stumping. “He put Wheeling back on the map nationally,” said Wheeling Mayor Nick Sparachane. Orrick’s global operations center — which houses the firm’s information technology infrastructure and financial operations — has helped Wheeling recruit other businesses, Sparachane said. Cabela’s Inc., a national outdoor sporting goods retailer, is building a distribution center and retail store in the city, which will employ 1,200 people. Gov. Wise has also praised Baxter for bringing jobs to the state. In his January 2002 state of the state address, Wise specifically mentioned Baxter, who was in the West Virginia state capitol during the speech. And in another profile-raising appearance, Baxter gave the commencement address at West Liberty State College in May. While Republicans could try to cast Baxter as a carpetbagger, he has roots in the state. His family lived in West Virginia, where his father worked in a steel mill, until Baxter was in fifth grade and they moved to San Bruno. Despite his years as a big-city corporate lawyer, Baxter said he still has a feel for the working class issues that dominate West Virginia politics. Neither of his parents went to college, and Baxter said that as a child he heard his relatives talk about the difficulty of finding jobs. “I do find myself drawn to the issues of West Virginia the more I learn about them,” Baxter said. They “connect to my roots, and the issues West Virginia is struggling with I know well.” “Education and the related issue of equal opportunity are very important to me,” he added. “I grew up in West Virginia and enjoyed a rewarding professional career, and everyone should have that.” Before going to law school, Baxter obtained a master’s degree in education and volunteered with the Urban Teacher Corp., teaching sixth grade in Washington, D.C. Baxter’s name isn’t well known throughout the state. Steve McElroy, the West Virginia Democratic Party’s director for communication and finance, said he hadn’t heard of Baxter. “If he’s running as a Democrat, have him give us a call,” McElroy said. “We’ll do what we can to get him involved in politics.” By the time 2008 rolls around there may be more opportunities for public office. Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller are both getting on in years and may decide to retire from politics. And the competitive House seat now occupied by Republican Shelley Moore Capito might provide another entree into Washington. Baxter’s sure to get support in Wheeling if he does enter the political fray. “Anything he got into would command a lot of respect and attention,” Sparachane said. “He communicates well and can really strike a bond with people. Everybody likes Mr. Baxter.”

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