By Mannix Porterfield
One can only surmise where Joe Manchin might have wound up had he not suffered a knee injury on the campus of West Virginia University.
Life is indeed an uncertain odyssey for us all, and at times, it closes one door, then opens another.
For Manchin, a promising quarterback for the Mountaineers, the future seemed bright, and there is no doubt he had dreams of making his mark in the world as an athlete.
A product of a tiny coal mining hamlet known as Farmington — a name that would be synonymous with tragedy in 1968 — the young Manchin certainly had that goal in mind.
“At that time, I was really immersed in sports,” he recalled.
And with good reason.
One of his fellow town residents was no less a prominent sports figure than Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker who starred for both the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
“We saw him playing football at the highest levels,” Manchin said.
“I was playing football at that age, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ ”
Not too many years later, Manchin found himself calling signals for the Mountaineers on a football scholarship, and life was looking up in spring practice for the eager freshman.
Until the knee was blown out.
“At that moment, I knew that part of my life and the dreams I had were gone,” he said.
“Soon after, I got married and I knew I had to make a life and get an education to provide for my family. So, I buckled down and got a degree.”
While on the Morgantown campus, Manchin suffered through the loss of the family business in a devastating fire. For a time, his life seemed headed in the wrong direction. Insurance fell woefully shy of covering the loss. Manchin had no choice but to leave WVU and help his father rebuild the carpeting firm. In 1970, he returned to school and earned his degree.
“We were successful in business because we lived and died by our service and the satisfaction of the customer,” he said.
“I’ve carried that same attitude into government.”
Manchin never became a football icon, but he made a name for himself in the political arena — state senator, secretary of state, governor, and now U.S. senator.
Even his first brush with politics was tinged by sports.
A lad of 13, he watched his family get involved in the election of John F. Kennedy and was deeply impressed that the Massachusetts senator was youthful, vibrant and often played touch football with his brothers.
An uncle, the late A. James Manchin, a Dickens-like master of the English language who wound up as secretary of state, then later as a member of the House of Delegates, left his teaching job to work full-time in Kennedy’s campaign.
Kennedy owed much of his success to West Virginia, using the state with its small percentage of Roman Catholics to prove one could be elected.
By a twist of political irony, Manchin became the first Catholic to become governor, and the year he was re-elected, his Republican opponent, former state Sen. Russ Weeks, also is of the Catholic faith. Who could have foreseen two Catholics running for governor back in that celebrated 1960 presidential contest!
Manchin served in the Legislature from 1982 to 1996 and, after that final year as a senator, put the governorship in his gunsights. He ran into a well-organized campaign in the Democratic primary headed by Charlotte Pritt, an attractive ex-senator bidding to become the state’s first female governor.
Manchin got a head start, actually hitting the hustings in 1995, but his first venture in gubernatorial waters found him sinking in a Pritt tidal wave.
Even today, Manchin shoulders the blame entirely for that setback.
“What you learn from any loss is that it’s no one’s fault but your own,” he said.
“No one else’s name was on that ballot but mine. If you can’t accept that, you shouldn’t be in the process.”
Manchin paid close attention to the loss and learned, among other things, how best to communicate his message. His homework paid off handsomely in just four years, when he overwhelmingly captured the office.
What he did was manage to bring labor and management together, forging a coalition not likely to be seen to the degree he wielded it ever again. Many who steadfastly had resisted his campaign in 1996 were solidly in his corner in the 2000 contest, and Manchin delivered a knockout.
Manchin the businessman became governor and wasted no time plowing the principles that guided his private life into the public role.
When he took the oath of office, West Virginia was drowning in several distinct pools of red ink, and Manchin knew the course he had to follow, or see the state go under.
While some chafed at his program, the new governor managed to privatize the unstable and deep-in-debt old Workers’ Compensation system, managed the first comprehensive pay raise package for teachers in 15 years and reduced West Virginia’s indebtedness dramatically.
All the while, he steered some tax cuts through the Legislature, including one on groceries.
No one could ever consider Manchin a liberal, given his record on taxes, gun ownership and a pro-life agenda. But is he a conservative or a moderate? Just where does his political agenda lie on the spectrum?
By his own definition, he is a “responsible Democrat, with all the compassion for people in need and holding those who can contribute responsible and accountable for their actions.”
Manchin is hardly in lockstep with the national party. Almost from the day he arrived on Capitol Hill, his voice has reverberated across the Potomac in sharp criticism with some leading Democrats, largely on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “war on coal,” as his successor, Earl Ray Tomblin, has characterized it, and the inability of Congress or the administration to deal with the nation’s spiraling debt.
As he phrases it, “we have a little bit of difficulty with the national Democrats.”
Manchin views them as out of step with Democrats in the land of his nativity, but even so, he doesn’t see himself as any less a member of the party.
Rather, he considers himself a Democrat in the fashion of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “that we needed to rebuild America by giving people jobs and hope — not just sending checks out to everybody.” Back as governor, he once remonstrated some of his constituents for “an entitlement mentality.”
Another aspect that troubles him is the huge sums of money poured into the process, turning it into big business, and Manchin says change is drastically in order.
“I won’t let Washington break me,” he says.
“This country’s been through some tough times — whether it was our revolution and the history of our birth, the strife over slavery, the Civil War or the Great Depression. But we got through it. Surely to goodness we can come through this, too.”
Manchin, in fact, wasn’t interested in politics to any great degree, and didn’t seek an office until he was 35. What motivated him then was the selfishness of one already in office.
That one “treated everything he did for his constituents as a favor, but he was elected to be a public servant,” Manchin recalled.
“I ran against him because I thought that there was a better way of providing unselfish service — that’s the job, to give service to the people,” he said.
Manchin’s zest to get involved with the people was learned at the knee of his grandfather, Papa Joe, an Italian immigrant who ran Farmington’s grocery store. And, there was the inspiration fueled by the tireless efforts of a grandmother, Mama Kay, in her intervention on behalf of those mired in less fortunate circumstances.
One of four children of John and Mary Manchin, the 34th governor found his life change even more dramatically two years ago when a political legend, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, died after achieving his mark as the longest serving senator in American history — one that likely will stand as long as the nation is around.
Manchin retained the office in a heavily-financed campaign against Republican businessman John Raese. A rematch is set for this fall.
In West Virginia, he was the most visible and undeniably the most popular political figure. Now, he finds himself in a vast new environment and things decidedly are far different than life on the Kanawha Boulevard.
“I don’t get to spend as much time back home as I wish I could,” he said.
“I never thought I could be this old and this homesick. I never knew how much I loved my state until I wasn’t able to be here every day.”
Yet, he sees the chance to represent his home state in national politics as a definite honor, but the greatest one is following Byrd in office.
“No one can ever fill his shoes, but even to try to follow in those footsteps and the legacy he left is something very few senators have the opportunity to do,” he said.
Manchin has been married more than four decades to the former Gayle Conelly of Beckley. The union produced three children — Heather, Joseph IV and Brooke. The couple boasts seven grandchildren — Joseph V, Sophia, Kelsey, Madeline, Chloe, Jack and Carly.
In his occasional trips back home, the licensed pilot still enjoys taking to the woods with deer rifle in hand.
Manchin hails from a political family, not all that uncommon in West Virginia politics. Consider names such as Mollohan, Kee and Staggers. For those following the paths carved by immediate ancestors, that can be good and bad.
“Political life and public service can sometimes come with harsh scrutiny on your family,” he said.
“But my family is strong, and we understand that the scrutiny is a small price to pay for the great country we have and our democracy.”
Above all, he said, one must stand on his own merits and ideals.
“You have to be capable of accepting anything that’s thrown at you, and know that you’ve got to work at it yourself and succeed,” he says.
“You’re grateful for help and assistance, but you’ve got to make it yourself. You have to go hustle.”
Manchin found the course he laid out early as governor to bring stakeholders together in a plethora of crises not all that difficult to achieve. In Washington, the sledding is much tougher.
“In terms of changing Washington, I believe we need to build more camaraderie across party lines, and do more to put the country first,” the senator says.
“We could sync up the House and Senate calendars so that we can build more opportunities for bipartisan interacting. People don’t know each other in Washington. They don’t know their spouses’ names, and that’s a problem for getting things done across party lines. I’m trying to change that.”
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