WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who came to West Virginia as a young man from one of the world’s richest families to work on antipoverty programs and remained in the state to build a political legacy, announced Friday he will not seek a sixth term.
The 75-year-old Democrat’s decision comes at a time when his popularity is threatened because of his support for President Barack Obama, who is wildly unpopular in the state, and his willingness to challenge the powerful coal industry, which he said has used divisive, fear-mongering tactics to wrongly blame the federal government for its problems.
Surrounded by family and dozens of supporters amid a backdrop of photos from past campaigns and public appearances, Rockefeller said the peak moment of his career may have been threatening to keep the Senate in session over Christmas break if they didn’t pass the 1992 Coal Act. The measure preserved retirement benefits for miners and their families, and he credited the passing of it with averting a national coal strike.
“In that fight, and so many others, I’ve been proud to stand with the working men and women of America. Miners, steelworkers, teachers and nurses, and everyone who deserves a fair wage, a safe place to work and basic health care,” he said during a 20-minute speech that was more upbeat than somber.
Rockefeller pointed to his heart and said he made “entirely a personal decision … it is not a political decision and it has not been easy.”
Other Congressmen from the Mountain State, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released statements following Rockefeller’s announcement:
“I still remember Jay’s first inaugural as governor,” Rahall, who was elected to Congress in 1976 as Rockefeller won his first term as governor, said. “He told us, ‘My name is Rockefeller, but that will not pay our bills.’ He gave us more than his family name. He 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, healthcare, countless economic development initiatives and road projects,” Rahall said. “Through it all, Jay has been tireless in his work and his dedication never as much as flickered.”
“Gayle and I join all West Virginians in thanking Jay for representing our state for more than 40 years – whether it was as a state legislator, Secretary of State, our Governor or as a member of the United States Senate,” Manchin said. “We wish him, his wife Sharon and their family only the best in their future endeavors, and I know that Jay will continue to make a difference in the lives of others.
“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.”
Rockefeller’s retirement is the first of the 2014 class and comes early in the process, giving Democrats time to find a candidate. His retirement was widely expected and puts the seat held by Democrats since 1958 in jeopardy for the party. Within weeks of November’s elections, Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito vowed to run for the seat in 2014, even if it meant going up against Rockefeller and his storied name. Other Republicans also have been eyeing the seat.
Democrats, who hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, will be defending 20 seats in next year’s election while Republicans have 13 seats on the ballot. Among the vulnerable Senate Democrats are Alaska’s Mark Begich, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, all in Republican-leaning states.
In a state that is the second-leading producer of coal, Rockefeller’s positions rankled some who are protective of an industry that brings more than 65,000 jobs to one of the nation’s poorest states. He accuses mining supporters of a combative closed-mindedness in the face of inexpensive natural gas, concerns over climate change and calls for cleaner ways to burn coal. Mining advocates accuse Rockefeller of abandoning them as Obama ramped up scrutiny of Appalachian mountaintop-removal mining operations.
“I know the coal companies are going after me. … I can live with that, because I know that I am fighting every day for coal miners,” Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller defended his support of Obama and the president’s signature health care overhaul, and insisted that their unpopularity with West Virginians did not influence his decision to retire.
“I’m proud of that work,” he said.
The great-grandson of famed industrialist John D. Rockefeller first arrived in West Virginia as a volunteer with the VISTA national service program in 1964. Within two years, he had won election to the Legislature, and then as secretary of state in 1968. After a failed run for governor in 1972 and four years as president of West Virginia Wesleyan College, Rockefeller won his first term as governor.
In an email to the Daily News, Rockefeller said that he “wanted to share how profoundly grateful I am for my home state and for the countless friends and supporters who have made my service possible.”
“After 50 years of public service in West Virginia – 30 in the U.S. Senate – it will be the right time to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in, and to focus more on my incredible family,” Rockefeller said. “Being a United States Senator for West Virginia is an abiding honor and privilege, every single day. And I believe as strongly as ever in the power of public service and public policy to change people’s lives for the better.
“For the next two years in the Senate, and well beyond, I will continue working tirelessly on behalf of all West Virginians and our great country. Ever since I first came to Emmons as a VISTA volunteer in 1964, the needs and dreams of the people of West Virginia have been my top priority. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I will never stop fighting for the people and causes that mean so much to me.”
The Associated Press Contributed to this article.