First published on The Big Smoke.
November 08, 2021
People on social media producing proof of Senator Joe Manchin’s perfidy only demonstrate their own naïvité and ignorance of West Virginia, its culture, and its people. (Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to understand those, either. But I know enough based on my experience there to guess these approaches will make no difference.)
When the state of Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861, twenty-five counties in the northwestern corner of the state broke away and were admitted to the Union as a new state a year later. Yet, if you drive through West Virginia today, you will see the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Northern Army of Virginia, commonly misidentified as the confederate flag, flying from houses, decorating pick-up trucks, and emblazoning clothing.
Last month, author Don Winslow posted a video, which is still circulating and has been viewed millions of times, describing the “vile and provable corruption in Manchin’s life” under the hashtag #JoeManchinSenatorForSale. It breathlessly describes how the Manchin family acquired millions of dollars from coal and pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, West Virginia remains the second poorest state in the nation; the video ranking its economy 48 out of 50, healthcare 47 out of 50, education 45 out of 50, and infrastructure 50 out of 50.
But, who are these videos for? No one in the senate will step up to take action against Manchin. Those pots know better than to call this particular kettle black.
Manchin won’t change. You can’t shame someone who has no shame. Last week when confronted by climate change protesters, Manchin just drove his Maserati through the crowd. And history won’t “remember” if there’s no one left with enough resources to record it.
Coal baron Manchin owns $5 million in coal company stock and rakes in half a million annually just in dividends in addition to fossil fuel company campaign contributions. He is the designated scapegoat roadblock to prevent Democrats from fulfilling any of the climate change promises they campaigned on in 2020. Although this position has increased Manchin’s power and prestige, the reality is that the Democrats’ corporate owners have no interest in reducing their profits to extend the ability of humans to survive on this planet.
Likewise, while residents of Manchin’s state would benefit from lower drug costs, reducing pharmaceutical company profits might negatively impact stock options for his daughter Heather Bresch, former president and CEO of Mylan, the company that increased the price of EpiPen 500 percent while she was in charge. Since pharmaceutical companies hedge their bets by contributing heavily to candidates from both parties, Manchin’s obstruction of drug price reforms is objectionable to the rest of the senate Democrats only when they’re in front of cameras.
And expecting outrage from West Virginians—the only folks who could actually remove Manchin from office—is a lost cause. Despite the popularity there of the legislation he is blocking, they’ve been voting for him for forty years and before that they repeatedly elected other swindlers.
I was a reporter in West Virginia just more than four decades ago (I left the year before Manchin first ran for public office). As part of the campaign press corps, I followed Democrat Jay Rockefeller around in 1980 when he stood for re-election as governor against Arch Alfred Moore Jr. former chief crook1 governor, who had been prevented by term limits from running in 1976. The joke was that folks should vote for Jay because he wouldn’t steal while in office since he could just buy the entire state. (Not that this reality prevented West Virginia from choosing Moore over Rockefeller in 1972 or from again electing Moore to the governor’s seat in 1984.)
While, unlike his predecessor/successor, he probably helped the state more than he harmed it, New York-born Rockefeller had stayed in West Virginia after completing his VISTA service there specifically to give himself a launching point for a national political career. His 1980 re-election campaign was only too obviously geared to put him in the national spotlight. (A colleague who had returned to his Ohio home to vote reported people coming into the polls and asking why Rockefeller’s name wasn’t on the ballot there since his ads were bleeding over into Ohio and Virginia and Maryland and Kentucky. In fairness, the only media reaching much of the state was based outside of West Virginia.)
Rockefeller outspent Moore 20 to 1 (I made a point of getting the clerks to weigh Rockefeller’s campaign expenditure reports rather than, like everyone else, reciting the absurd number of pages and/or foot-plus thickness), but only received 8 percent more of the total votes. And although Rockefeller served 30 years in the United States Senate (spending more than $12 million, almost $31 million in today’s dollars, to win the seat his first time), his long-planned run for president in 1992 ended after consultations with friends and advisers. (Scuttlebutt pinned his decision on skeletons in his stepfather’s, Senator Charles Harting Percy, closet. Others blamed fears of resurrecting interest in the never-solved 1966 murder of his wife’s twin sister. In either case, the general belief was his decision was made to protect his wife, Sharon Percy Rockefeller.)
Although West Virginians allowed an “outsider” to repeatedly buy a senate seat, they prefer home-grown crooks. Any attempt to “expose” Manchin without examining why West Virginians consistently vote grifters into office will not result in any change.
West Virginia is a gorgeous, interesting, conflicted state (a lovely place to visit, I don’t recommend living there). Advertisements for census workers in 1980 included the requirement, for some areas, that the applicant have the ability to ride and access to use of a horse. The newsroom routinely got wedding announcements for 14-year-olds, so staff only took note when someone in the announcement was 12 or younger. When my parents visited, we were driving back from The Greenbrier to Raleigh County when my mother noted that all the homes we passed were dark. It was Wednesday night, I explained, everyone was in church. At the time, if you wanted to go out to a bar for a drink, your only option was a “private” club (which generally meant forking over $1 for “membership” the first time you visited).
West Virginians resent being stereotyped as ignorant hillbillies. But, on January 20, 1982 I drew the short straw and was sent to accost people on the streets to ask what they thought of the release of the Iranian hostages. More than one person replied, “What hostages?” and even when I provided them additional information had no idea what I was talking about. That inspired me to pull the old journalism-school petition trick a few weeks later. (Without changing a single word except to replace “Bill of Rights” with “Petition” at the top, try to get random people to sign it.) Not only did the vast majority of the dozens of people I asked refuse to sign it, only two recognized it. The coup de grâce was an attorney who, on the courthouse steps and without recognizing the document’s language, objected to the “petition” because he specifically disagreed with number two.
The year I worked at the Post-Herald in Beckley, West Virginia, I initiated and completed three major investigations. As a reporter, I exposed:
- conflict of interest, prescription misuse, and inappropriate use of federal funds at the county health department and regional health center forcing county officials to terminate their contracts;
- questionable financial dealings by a local coal baron that resulted in payment of $68,000 ($231,000 in today’s dollars) in back taxes;
- a local agency’s conflict of interest in use of Comprehensive Employment and Training Act Funds, which resulted in a state investigation.
In all three cases, the original tip came from someone who, like me, was an out-of-state (and more than likely temporary) transplant.
Because, for West Virginians, corrupt politicians, public officials, and other prominent personages are par for the course. Just as they accept coal mines and glass factories exploiting their children, grinding poverty, and crumbling infrastructure worse than elsewhere in the country, West Virginians seem unwilling to rid themselves of the politicians who regularly enrich themselves at the public trough.
1 Moore pleaded guilty to five felonies—including mail fraud, tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice—in 1990 after federal investigators taped him conspiring with his former campaign manager to obstruct their investigation. Although he was fined $3.2 million, he paid only $750,000, and served only two years and eight months in federal prison (in Alabama and Kentucky) and four months of home confinement of a five-year and ten-month sentence. Just the illegal payments and extortion income he pled guilty to neglecting to include on his income tax amounted to more than a million 1980 dollars ($3.4 million today).