The voters behind the Senate’s most important vote
The Weekly Dispatch
By Karim Doumar

Hi everybody, I’m Karim Doumar, an audience editor at ProPublica, filling in for Logan this week. Welcome back to the Weekly Dispatch.

If you followed the passage of President Joe Biden’s stimulus bill, you know about Sen. Joe Manchin. And this is probably what you know: The West Virginia Democrat is the most conservative member of the Senate Democrats, and their majority is so tiny that it’s almost impossible for them to pass anything without him.

If you read the daily papers, Manchin has one of two roles: Either he has worked with Republicans to forge bipartisan compromises (remember the December stimulus bill?), or he is the final hurdle facing progressive legislation before it can be enacted (remember the March stimulus bill?).

Either way, all the thorniest Senate issues of the day, including infrastructure, the filibuster and climate change, run straight through Manchin, leaving him competing with the president for the Most Important Joe award. So we wanted to get to know him better.

Lucky for you, reporter Ken Ward Jr., a distinguished fellow working with ProPublica, has spent a lifetime as an investigative and environmental reporter in the state Manchin serves. Ward, who is also a reporter at nonprofit Mountain State Spotlight, isn’t as interested in the Manchin you read about in most political coverage, that highly sought 50th D vote in the senate. What he’s interested in is policy and how it impacts people’s lives. That may sound obvious, but when I sat down with him (via Zoom) to ask what he’s learned about Manchin in his years covering the man, he frequently had to gently nudge me back toward policy and people, and away from looking at the world through a political lens.

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Karim Doumar: There's this national narrative of Joe Manchin as a Democrat in a deep red state, navigating a series of wedge issues to survive politically, but a lot less attention is paid toward him as a politician being responsive specifically to needs of voters who elected him. Do you think that's a fair characterization? And what do you think people who are reading that kind of stuff are missing about residents and voters in the state?

Ken Ward Jr.: The real sticking point for me with the way the national narrative is [it’s] as if the goal of politics is to decide whether red or blue wins, as opposed to looking at what's being accomplished either way. With Sen. Manchin, I'm looking at: What is it that his constituents elected him to do? And is he serving them? Or to what extent in some cases might he not be serving them?

The example that is in my wheelhouse reporting-wise is: What is he going to do in his role on the Energy Committee on climate change issues? So much of the narrative is more about whether he is going to help President Biden achieve his legislative goals on that or not, as opposed to the parts of it that I think are important. Is he going to be successful in insisting that any sort of action about climate change that might further reduce the ability of states like West Virginia to rely on fossil fuels for the economy, is he going to do something to make sure that the states that would be hurt economically by that have something else in place, some sort of just transition for coal communities, which has been this kind of elusive concept?

KD: Can you talk about West Virginia, its relationship to coal and natural gas, and what role he's had in that?

KW: Joe Manchin has a unique connection to West Virginia and its coal industry. Let's be clear that coal from West Virginia and coal communities from West Virginia helped build the country. They helped make America an industrial power. They helped win a couple of world wars. Coal from West Virginia has been important for the rest of the country.

It's been more of a mixed bag for West Virginia because while West Virginia is the historically largest coal producer in the country, West Virginia is one of the poorest states. So the big existential question is, if coal is so great for West Virginia, why is West Virginia so poor?

The much oversimplified but still accurate answer is because so much of the wealth that comes out of the ground from coal is going someplace else. So right now, with coal and natural gas, West Virginia is at this really historic pivot point in its lifetime. Coal is continuing to decline, and natural gas has risen in its place. In West Virginia, it's become a more politically and economically powerful industry. Production has skyrocketed, but we're seeing the same thing: that some of the places where natural gas is produced, and where people bear the burden of extracting it from the ground, are among the state's poorest places. Why is that? The answer, of course, is somewhat similar: A lot of the wealth is going someplace else.

I would say [Manchin’s] most visceral connection with the coal industry is his uncle was one of 78 miners who died in 1968 in a horrible explosion at the Farmington mine in north-central West Virginia. That explosion led to the passage of federal mine safety legislation. His family was partially supported by the coal industry. At the same time, his family felt the unique pain of what too many other West Virginia families have felt. So he should understand this kind of complicated relationship better than most politicians.

KD: One of the ways for people to understand politicians is to look at how they've responded to crises and disasters. You've covered the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster and Sago Mine disaster. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned about Joe Manchin while you were covering those disasters?

KW: The Sago Mine disaster happened in 2006. And 12 miners were killed in that explosion. A few weeks after that, there was a mine fire at the Aracoma Mine. Two miners died in that. Then in 2010, 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Joe Manchin was governor for all of those.

And so he got to play this role in this theater that we have in West Virginia over these mine disasters, where what happens is, oh my God, the whistle blew, there was an explosion at the mine. All the families rush to a school or a church or some building nearby. And they huddle there and wait for news while the mine rescue teams are looking for them.

Joe Manchin got to play the role of the guy who comes out and briefs the media and the families about where things stand. And he rushed very quickly after the Sago Mine disaster to get the Legislature here to push through a historic law to improve mine rescue capability. You would think you would have excess air for them to breathe and other sorts of emergency equipment, but America didn't while other countries did. So Joe Manchin pushed through legislation to address that.

But then there's this other scene that really sticks in my mind. After the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, when we all spent about a week waiting and hoping that some of these miners may have survived, that they were huddled breathing extra oxygen that was in the mine because of Joe Manchin. But it turned out they didn't. So [after] this weeklong series of periodic briefings, Gov. Manchin comes out and he talks about how the Women's Auxiliary in the community where this happened had been bringing food to the media, who had gathered to cover the story, and how typically and wonderfully West Virginia that was that they were making sure that all of these folks from out of state who were there to cover this tragedy were fed.

He was talking about this in a way that, _gosh, there's a good story here for West Virginia too, because look at what good people we are that we fed all of these reporters, _as opposed to this sense of outrage that 29 more coal miners got blown up needlessly.

Now I don't doubt for a second that Joe Manchin actually was outraged. And Don Blankenship, the CEO of the company that owned that mine, Joe Manchin has been in a longtime feud with him since. But when the curtain was coming down on that scene, outside the Upper Big Branch Mine, he wanted to tell the story of what good people this Lady's Auxiliary was.

It just struck me as almost an acceptance that this is the theater that we're going to go through in West Virginia, periodically, if we're going to rely on the coal industry.

KD: You mentioned that since then he's had a feud with Don Blankenship. Is that typical of his relationship with a lot of the people who run the mining companies?

KW: I don't think so at all. I went for years to the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual meetings, and Sen. Manchin was always on the agenda as a speaker. When many people in West Virginia felt that the Obama administration was singling out the coal industry, Joe Manchin was very squarely on the side of the coal industry. I don't think that he counts many coal CEOs on a Joe Manchin enemies list. They're more likely on a list of people who contributed to his campaign.

KD: You've reported extensively on the current Gov. Jim Justice and his business empire. What is their relationship like?

KW: The story there is that Joe Manchin denies that he was directly involved in convincing Jim Justice to run, but he was a major early supporter when Jim Justice, who had been a Republican, became a Democrat to run for governor in 2016. And Joe Manchin was his most visible and vocal supporter in that run.

Very shortly after that, less than a year after he took office, Gov. Justice announced at a Donald Trump rally in Huntington, West Virginia, that he was switching parties back to becoming a Republican. And so that started this feud between Justice and Manchin. You often don't get senators delving down into state political issues to that extent anymore, but Manchin has done that on numerous occasions to criticize the way Jim Justice was running the state. Most recently, when Jim Justice ran for reelection in 2020, Manchin supported Ben Selango, the Democratic nominee, and campaigned for him.

KD: It looks like the next thing that Biden wants to do is pass an infrastructure bill. Manchin already came out and said he wanted to do it with Republican support. In your reporting and in reporting from the Mountain State Spotlight team, if you could write up an infrastructure bill for West Virginia, what does West Virginia need?

KW: There's a certain lore to that for Joe Manchin, on infrastructure, that's especially strong, because of course, West Virginia for decades had Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and Robert C. Byrd was proud to be the Prince of Pork. We've got roads and bridges and schools, and all sorts of public buildings all over the state, institutes of higher learning, and lots and lots of federal money that came here because of Sen. Byrd's position. So that's like the ideal for someone like Joe Manchin. But he's not the chair of the Appropriations Committee. So he's not necessarily in the same position to pour the pork here except to the extent that he can hold his vote over the person who is.

West Virginia continues to lag behind in lots of different kinds of infrastructure that would help the country. We have old and crumbling infrastructure for drinking water. We have old (and in many places nonexistent) infrastructure for sanitary sewers. Many parts of West Virginia still, despite billions of dollars from the Appalachian Regional Commission for Highway Construction, lag behind in having good roads. West Virginia has a lot of needs for aid related to schools.

But the biggest infrastructure worry is that West Virginia spent 100 years mining coal, and a lot of the good coal is gone. A lot of the other coal that's left isn't going to be mined because of climate change and because of cheap, natural gas. So what kind of infrastructure can West Virginia get that would enable it to have another kind of economy? Is that more federal money for wind power, or for solar power or job retraining? The sort of infrastructure that West Virginia most desperately needs is infrastructure that allows communities to find another path forward.

Unfortunately, there's no quick and easy answer, but there are lots of ideas out there. The Abandoned Mine Land Program is a federal program to clean up abandoned mines. The same kind of work running a bulldozer on an active surface mine? Same guy can run a bulldozer cleaning up an abandoned mine. You have a lot of places in West Virginia where Joe Smith company might put this cleaner, futuristic economic development project, but they can't because the water and the sewer in that community aren't any good, and there's no flatland that isn't marred by an old mindsight. So can we spend more money on those kinds of things?

KD: Do you have any insight on the important climate questions you’ve mentioned? On where he will lean?

KW: I think it's gonna depend on what he thinks he can get. There was a grand compromise, a long, long time ago, where John L. Lewis, who was the legendary president of the United Mine Workers of America, agreed to go along with mechanization of the mines, bringing in big machines underground that were going to cost hundreds of thousands of miners their jobs over a couple of decades. He went along with it partly because I think he thought it was inevitable, but also because he got out of it the creation of UMW health and retirement funds and a series of medical clinics around the coalfields for miners and their families. So the question for Manchin is, is there some grand compromise around climate change, where he can get what he thinks West Virginia really needs in exchange for going in favor of a bill that his friends in the coal industry may not really want?

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