By Mannix Porterfield
John D. Rockefeller IV, scion of a wealthy New York family and known simply as “Jay,” changed political parties and home states in the turbulent 1960s to launch a successful career in West Virginia politics, one he is ending when his fifth term in the U.S. Senate is up two years from now.
“As I approach 50 years of public service in West Virginia, I’ve decided that 2014 will be the right moment for me to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in and to spend more time with my incredible family,” the 75-year-old Rockefeller said in a statement.
“Serving West Virginia is an abiding honor and privilege, and Sharon and I are so full of gratitude to our state and to the countless friends and supporters who have made my public service possible. For the next two years in the Senate, and well beyond, I will continue working tirelessly on behalf of all West Virginians. Championing those most in need has been my life’s calling, and I will never stop fighting to make a difference for the people who mean so much to me.”
For all his time on Capitol Hill, he never lacked for causes.
Rockefeller led fight after fight to improve health and safety laws for coal miners, protect the rights of military veterans, defend tax credits for children, and expand classroom opportunities via the Internet in what became known simply as the E-Rate program.
Rockefeller’s teammate in the Senate, Joe Manchin, thanked the outgoing senator for his decades-long public service.
“When I first arrived in Washington two and a half years ago, I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome from Jay and his staff, and I am so personally grateful for all their help,” Manchin said.
“More importantly, in all his decades of public service, Jay has followed one guiding principle: to improve the lives of West Virginians. Jay’s heart has always been true, and we share the goal of serving the beautiful people of the state we love today and into the future.”
Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh recalled “a good working relationship” between his city and the senator, saying, “He’s going to be missed.”
“I think Sen. Rockefeller has done a lot of positives,” the mayor said.
“He’s brought in a lot of out-of-state investment, and provided a lot of benefits to our citizens.”
Once, Pugh had dinner with Rockefeller, and came away impressed about how much he knew about him, and his family, the mayor noted.
“He had definitely done his homework,” Pugh said.
“As we moved on and developed our relationship, I could always count on him for any advice and help if he could have. He definitely has been an asset to West Virginia.”
State Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio said a mere “thank you” is inadequate to pay tribute.
“He dedicated his life to public service and all West Virginians, and Americans have benefited from his efforts,” Puccio said.
“Many children in West Virginia are living better lives because of Jay, our veterans are getting the respect they so deserve because of Jay, and our seniors feel more secure because of Jay. Sen. Rockefeller has done great things for West Virginia. While I am so happy for Sen. Rockefeller and his family to be able to enjoy his retirement together, it is my hope that whoever replaces him in the Senate will have the same commitment to put our people above politics.”
Back when Rockefeller opened his first term as West Virginia governor in 1977, his message was simple: “My name is Rockefeller but that will not pay our bills.”
Rep. Nick Rahall recalled those telling words, saying the senator “pledged his heart, mind and strength to us that day. For almost half a century, Sen. Rockefeller’s service to his state and its families has never wavered from that commitment.
“We have fought many battles together — miners safety, health care, countless economic development initiatives and road projects,” the 3rd District congressman said.
“Through it all, Jay has been tireless in his work, and his dedication never as much as flickered.”
State Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, said West Virginians owe Rockefeller a debt of gratitude.
“He is to be commended for his lifelong commitment and dedication to public service,” Green said.
“I want to personally thank and wish Sen. Rockefeller and his family all the best as they transition into the next phase of their lives.”
Bob Wise, a one-term governor, now serving as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said Rockefeller has earned the right to devote more time to his family after all he achieved to advance others.
“While the Senate will miss Sen. Rockefeller’s voice, millions of Americans who now have access to health care, education, and far more economic opportunity will serve as constant testimony to his impact,” Wise said in a statement from his Washington, D.C., office.
Rockefeller’s persistent efforts on behalf of coal miner health and safety didn’t go unnoticed by the head of the United Mine Workers of America.
“Sen. Rockefeller has been one of the best friends our union has ever had,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said.
“In every struggle — whether promoting mine safety, ensuring continued support for our retirees’ health care and pensions through the Coal Act or fighting for workplace justice — he has been a constant and untiring friend to coal miners and all working people,” Roberts said.
“Jay Rockefeller has always been a compassionate champion of the citizens of West Virginia. I look forward to continuing to work closely with him for the duration of his term, and wish him all the best in the years that follow.”
A great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, he left his privileged estate and arrived in West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer in 1964, working in the grassy fields of Emmons in rural Kanawha County, and two years later secured a seat in the House of Delegates. Two years after that, he became secretary of state.
His first real political test produced a setback, that coming in 1972 when he took on formidable Arch A. Moore Jr., then seeking re-election as a Republican governor.
Rockefeller ill-advisedly called for the end of surface mining, siding with emerging environmental forces, and the Moore campaign, through the incumbent’s State Police superintendent, sought to portray the challenger as a draft evader during the Vietnam War.
The campaign was hard-fought, and at times acerbic, as the two heavyweights slugged it out for the top political post in the state.
In one memorable television ad, the Moore camp interviewed New Yorkers along a busy street, asking how they would feel about a West Virginian running for governor in the Big Apple. One passer-by quipped, “That makes as much sense as a New Yorker running for governor of West Virginia.”
Four years after Moore’s triumph, however, any doubts about Rockefeller’s ability to serve faded and West Virginia voters handed him the keys of the governor’s mansion, effectively giving him an eight-year lease. He stayed there two full terms, then hit another home run in 1984 by winning a U.S. Senate seat, defeating Republican rival John Raese with about 51 percent of the tally. Just as he had done in running for governor, Rockefeller invested some $12 million in his campaign in a close victory over Raese in a year that saw Ronald Reagan carry West Virginia in the presidential race. In subsequent re-election bids, Rockefeller won handily.
Rockefeller’s mettle as a leader came under fire almost immediately in his first term as governor, when he stepped up to personally manage the recovery from a horrific flood in southern West Virginia.
Two decades ago, Rockefeller served as finance chairman of the National Democratic Party and gave some thought to seeking the presidency in 1992, but eventually gave a strong endorsement to eventual President Bill Clinton.
As a senator, Rockefeller not only worked on behalf of veterans, miners and students, but in recent years came to the forefront in another cause — gratuitous violence in video games, the Internet and movies. His efforts took on added significance in the aftermath of the massacre of 26 people, including 20 children, at a schoolhouse in Newtown, Conn.
Rockefeller’s sudden retirement announcement Friday triggered an avalanche of high praise from public officials and triggered a flurry of speculation about potential successors.
In Washington, longtime Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., suggested he is considering a shot at filling the senator’s seat in the 2014 election.
Only two months ago, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called reporters to the lower rotunda of the state Capitol to announce her intention to seek the post.
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