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West Virginia's 'centrist' governor readies for national role

| Sunday, June 27, 2010

Most of the country sees West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin after a coal mine tragedy.

Lately, he's been preparing for a different role. Manchin, 62, is considering a Senate run should Robert Byrd, 92, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, decide not to seek a 10th term in 2012.

On June 4, Manchin created a federal political action committee, Country Roads PAC, to pay for political travel and donations. He campaigned for Mark Critz, the Pennsylvania Democrat who won a special election May 18 to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown. Manchin said he's laying the groundwork to support "centrist candidates who can ... bring the warring parties, if you will, together."

Next month, he is expected to become chairman of the National Governors Association after serving a year as vice chairman.

"He's a good leader, a consensus builder," said Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, chairman of the association. Douglas said he's relied on Manchin to help hold the association together through the rancorous health-care debate of the past year.

Manchin reaches his two-term limit in 2012.

"Do I have a desire to serve• Absolutely. I want to put myself in the best position I can to serve my state," he said.

Manchin's popularity within West Virginia endures, even as voter discontent drags down incumbents such as 14-term U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan of Fairmont, who lost in the Democratic primary in May.

Manchin's life has touched the markers by which West Virginians measure themselves, starting with his coal mining family and childhood without vacations. He attended West Virginia University on a football scholarship and blew out his knee in service to the beloved Mountaineers.

They knew Manchin's name before they knew him. His late uncle, A. James Manchin, was a state treasurer impeached by the House of Delegates when $279 million disappeared. He taught civics classes after his impeachment and won election in 1998 to the House that had impeached him.

A. James Manchin picked fights with outsiders who cracked jokes about his state and ran an environmental cleanup campaign to "purge our proud peaks of these jumbled jungles of junkery." In a state with a fierce independent streak -- it formed as a breakaway republic of secessionist Virginia during the Civil War -- whose citizens have endured a hundred years of hillbilly insults, A. James Manchin was a legend.

His nephew emulates the message, though with a quieter delivery and less indictable governing style. He pitches himself as the state's chief cheerleader and a bridge between his state's coal-mining past and high-tech future.

"I believe in you more than you believe in yourselves," he tells West Virginians.

In 2004, Manchin won 52 of the state's 55 counties. In 2008, he won them all. Democratic presidential contenders during those years won nine and seven counties, respectively.

"I think he is the most popular governor that's served in West Virginia in my lifetime," said Dave Hardy, Democratic commissioner of Kanawha County, home of the capital, Charleston.

Manchin's re-election occurred amid the only scandal of his tenure. An investigation found WVU had given his oldest daughter, Heather Manchin Bresch, 40, a master's degree though she hadn't completed the required classes.

In late 2007, university officials altered transcripts to say Bresch had earned the degree. Several school officials, including Manchin family friend and WVU President Mike Garrison, resigned. Bresch, president of Cecil-based pharmaceutical giant Mylan Inc., told investigators that she believed she'd earned her degree in 1998.

Mylan is the 11th-largest private employer in West Virginia and the largest in Morgantown, home of the university. Its founder, Milan Puskar, gave WVU $20 million in 2003, and the Mountaineers' football stadium bears his name. One of the world's leading generic drug makers, it's an oft-cited example of the state's emerging industries -- what politicians like Manchin call the "new West Virginia."

Manchin said recently that he "can speak as a parent, not as an official" about the controversy because he appoints 12 of the school's 17-member board of governors.

The governor said he didn't find out about the controversy until shortly before media reports surfaced in early 2008. He said his daughter, who was going through a divorce at the time, had been told her work experience counted toward her degree.

"From a parent's standpoint, from a mother and father's standpoint, to watch that, to watch your child unmercifully attacked, day in and day out, and in my position not to be able to come help her as a father wants to help every child --- no matter how old they are, you want to do that intuitively. And I couldn't," Manchin said.

The distance he maintained between the unfolding scandal and his office paid off that November. Despite Republican nominee Russ Weeks' attempts to tie him to the revoked degree, Manchin won with 70 percent of the vote in a three-candidate field.

"I come from a Republican county," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam. "They voted for him 70 percent."

The reason, Hall said: "He is very conservative."

Manchin said he prefers "centrist."

The governor won over many Republicans early in his tenure. The first major bill he signed privatized West Virginia's workers compensation system, slashing the state's unfunded liabilities by $1.3 billion -- a 40 percent drop -- in two years.

The state's projected $134 million budget deficit next year is the second-lowest in the country, both in total dollars and as a percentage of the budget, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

While winning over conservatives, Manchin has maintained support among Democrats by defending the coal industry. Amid the national search for cleaner energy sources, labor and business leaders in West Virginia have adopted a siege mentality.

"They're trying to eliminate the burning of coal in our power plants," said Kenneth Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Though normally at odds with each other, the groups have come together behind Manchin, who freely criticizes Democrats, including President Obama, for threatening the coal industry with what he calls overreaching regulations.

Coal mining remains a way of life in much of West Virginia. The industry employs about 30,000, accounts for more than 60 percent of the business taxes paid to the state and reaches deep into the identities of many West Virginia families -- Manchin's included.

His grandfather emigrated from Italy and mined coal from 1914 to 1927 until getting blackballed for being a union organizer. He opened a grocery store in Farmington in 1932. His father started a furniture store, while his uncles followed many of the men of Farmington into the mines. One, John Gouzd, died in the 1968 explosion that killed 77.

A year ago, Manchin signed a bill making coal the state rock.

The alliance infuriates environmentalists.

"He comes across as sympathetic when he's at the latest coal-mining disaster, but when he's speaking with the folks dealing with the slowly unfolding environmental disasters, he's not there," said Vivian Stockman, coordinator of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, which seeks to stop mountaintop-removal mining in which summits overlying a coal seam are dumped into neighboring river valleys as fill.

Manchin believes critics ignore his accomplishments, such as the land-use bill he enacted, which requires strip-mined sites be made useful for reforestation or development.

"We get no credit for that whatsoever. Truly, none," Manchin said.

The coal industry had been allowed to run rampant, he said, but recent laws are reining it in. "All I can do is try to fix the sins of the past," he said. "I can't undo it."

Additional Information:

Joe Manchin III

West Virginia governor since 2005

Born: 1947, Farmington

Home: Fairmont

Family: Married to Gayle; children: Heather Manchin Bresch, Joe Manchin IV, Brooke Manchin; seven grandchildren

Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration, West Virginia University, 1970

Previous elective office:

House of Delegates, 1983-87

State Senate, 1987-97

Secretary of State, 2001-05

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