Jay Rockefeller and I started our real careers in the same week and the same place — Charleston, W.Va. He was being inaugurated as governor and I was a new reporter for UPI.
Both of us were native New Yorkers who ended up light years away from our origins in every sense but miles. He was an unlikely populist champion of the downtrodden in a state he had adopted after arriving as a VISTA volunteer in 1964. I was a beginner chasing news.
And West Virginia was a very good state for news, beset by poverty and periodically afflicted by labor strife, mining accidents, and calamitous floods. The headliner happened before I arrived — the disastrous 1972 Buffalo Creek flood caused by the collapse of a mining company dam, vividly chronicled in Kai Erickson’s Everything in Its Path. But there was plenty of destruction to cover during my two years there.
Rockefeller was an aspiring reformer who opposed strip mining and railed against the grip of out-of-state development companies on flat land away from the flood plain, where people could live without risking death and destruction in every spring flood. By 1991, Rockefeller was seriously exploring a presidential bid, in part, he told me, because it was a way to get people to listen to his ideas on health care.
This dynastic heir had such empathy for his adopted constituents that he inspired ridicule during his governorship for overstating warnings of a storm that failed to materialize. Decades after his VISTA service, in 2009, he teared up at a committee session on health care as he recalled unintentionally humiliating a very poor young man.
At the time he was making a stand for a public health insurance option, which he described to me as a “safe harbor” for those who believed insurance companies might spurn them, but trusted that their government would never turn them away. This was, as I wrote then for Politics Daily, a journey 45 years in the making.
Rockefeller did not succeed in his quest for a public insurance program, reflecting the political journey of his country and his state to a more conservative place on the spectrum. President Obama has received no love at all from this once blue state, and Rockefeller’s colleague — Sen. Joe Manchin — is possibly the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. Rockefeller’s successor could well be Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of the Republican who both preceded and succeeded Rockefeller as governor.
One advance sign of Rockefeller’s retirement came last year when he challenged the coal industry in blunt terms to come up with environmental solutions rather than “attack false enemies and deny real problems.” There’s no turning back an ideological tide that has turned away from Rockefeller, but it’ll be interesting to hear what else he has to say now that he doesn’t have to face West Virginia voters again.