November 20, 2012

Small-town values: Joe Manchin applies ‘common-sense solutions’ in political career | Times West Virginian

(Editor’s note: This is the next story in a series about politicians from recent history who have had a profound impact on West Virginia.) 

FAIRMONT — There’s no definitive guide on how to be a successful politician, but if some enterprising soul were to sit down and try to write it, the first chapter would be about identifying with voters.

Political careers have been forged and destroyed by whether the candidate seems like “one of us” or “out of touch.” For that reason, just about every politician can point to at least one aspect of his life to prove he represents small-town values and common sense.

Sometimes it can come across as cynical, but in the case of current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, it accurately depicts his worldview. After all, the people of Marion County know his small town.

Born in 1947 in Farmington, Manchin grew up with both business and political examples to follow. His grandfather, “Papa Joe” Manchin, held many offices in Farmington throughout his life, including mayor, chief of police and justice of the peace.

Both his grandfather and grandmother, “Mama Kay” Manchin, are remembered for their charity as much as their political or business practice. Papa Joe helped folks who’d made mistakes with their legal fines and Mama Kay made sure that even the town drunks were taken care of, and they passed those values on to their children and grandchildren.

Manchin started his political career by serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates and West Virginia State Senate between 1982 and 1996, but things took off in 2000 when he was elected as secretary of state. His tenure was marked by a focus on customer service and “retail government,” meaning he tried to make his office more accessible and oriented toward serving the public, much like his uncle A. James Manchin had done.

In 2004, Manchin succeeded Bob Wise to become the governor of West Virginia. As governor, he managed to pay down the state’s debt while lowering taxes.

Perhaps the most unpleasant part of any governor’s job is having to be the face for a disaster, and in 2006 when an explosion trapped 13 miners deep within the Sago mine in Upshur County, Manchin was on scene within hours of the incident. He spent time with the families of the trapped miners as they waited for the full tragedy to unfold.

New mine safety regulations followed the disaster, and Manchin suspended all coal mining in the state for safety checks before mining could resume.

Again in 2010, when tragedy struck at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, Manchin was there to comfort the families and worked to propose legislation to prevent further accidents, as well as initiating an investigation into Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine.

Manchin said he is no stranger to mine accidents, having lost family members in the Farmington No. 9 mine blast of 1968, and that experience allowed him to empathize with and comfort families struggling with lost loved ones.

“If I’m on that side of the table, and that’s my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I’m going to have hope,” he said in 2010 as they waited for more word on whether anyone had survived the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Later that year he won a special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who died in office, and recently Manchin was elected to his first full term.

As a senator, Manchin has remained engaged in local issues while dealing with the concerns of West Virginians on the national level.

His political philosophy can be described as deeply bipartisan. In a recent floor speech, he spoke out strongly against kicking important issues down the road because of political gridlock.

“The people of West Virginia ... sent me here to help fix our budget problems with bipartisan common-sense solutions, the way we did when I was their governor,” he said. “We didn’t pull these kinds of stunts in West Virginia.”

He has also fought strongly for the expanded research of clean coal technology and other alternative fuels that can be produced in West Virginia, a balanced national budget and other “common-sense solutions,” as he calls them.

What people really remember, though, are the personal moments.

In late February, Marion County was hit by the worst flood it had experienced in decades. Manchin came back to his home county to tour the damage and “give (people) some hope,” as he put it. He told residents that his own family had been affected by a flood in Farmington when he was young, and promised to do whatever he could in Washington to get them some assistance.

By:  Jonathan Williams