Joe Manchin III: The Harry Houdini of West Virginia Politics

HNN Staff
Joe Manchin
Joe Manchin

This feature profile completes our two-part series on John Raese and Joe Manchin, whose Special Election campaign for the unexpired term of the late Robert C. Byrd surprised many for its ups and downs last year.

As political observers ponder whether a rematch is in store for the two political competitors for the full six-year term in 2012, a bit more background is in order.  On Sunday, we featured a profile on John Raese. Today, we look at the political career of Joe Manchin III.


After graduating from WVU with a degree in information management, Joe Manchin seemed to take awhile to figure out what dreams to pursue.  His dreams of a football career had been ended early at WVU, following an injury sustained in practice.  Whatever prospects Manchin may have had, like John Raese, he opted for returning home to work for the family businesses.

For Manchin, a Farmington native, that meant returning to that small, closely-knit Marion County community and learning the carpet and furniture trade.  His father, Joseph, Jr., had started those businesses, perhaps picking up the small business "bug" from his own parents, "Papa Joe" and "Mama Kay," who were well-known for their grocery store in Farmington.  In later years, Joe Manchin would cite his grandparents repeatedly as where the entire, proud Italian-American family learned their values.

If Manchin learned his business skills from his father and grandparents, there is little question that he had in his Uncle A. James Manchin a role model to teach him the art of retail politics.  "Uncle Jimmy," a schoolteacher and coach, had started making a name for himself while attending WVU, where he was befriended by a more slick upperclassman from the Northern Panhandle, Arch A. Moore, Jr.

Though A. James started his local political career in Farmington as a member of the House of Delegates, his college chum, Moore, would later launch A. James's statewide career. When the Republican Moore became elected Governor in 1968, he tapped the Democratic Manchin to be head of a state government program to clear junk cars from West Virginia's highways.  Manchin pursued the job with great relish, introducing his flamboyant oratory and zoot suit style to the public with TV ads and posters, declaring:  "Let us purge our proud peaks of these jumbled jungles of junkery!"

A. James Manchin either delighted or appalled the West Virginia voters.  Many people, especially senior citizens, loved the attention he bestowed upon them later as Secretary of State.  He would produce a certificate with a gold star and make quite a production of just about anyone's service to "Mother West Virginia."  Giving away his trademark white or black fedora to young teenage boys along the campaign trail, Manchin was known to even pull off the road and attend funerals for people he didn't know.

In short, A. James Manchin was a one-man political carnival.  Students who heard one of his presentations may have come in snickering about him--his hats, his flowery speeches--but about halfway into one of A. James's presentations on stage, they were mesmerized.

An A. James Manchin speech usually had a bit of song, a bit of patriotic verse.  One stanza he loved to recite went like this:

Just a little bit of cloth, painted red, white, and blue

What does it mean to me?  What does it mean to you?

Typically, those listening to A. James enjoyed the experience.  They wanted someone to believe in them and A. James provided that.


After 13 long years of measuring carpets, Joe Manchin wanted to plunge into politics himself.  Then 35, Manchin initially followed the same path as his famous Uncle by running for the House of Delegates.  But whereas A. James was content to have just about any audience to perform before, the younger Manchin set his sites higher from the start.  After just one term in the House of Delegates, Manchin declared his intentions of running for State Senate.

However, he should have checked in with his Uncle A. James first.  A. James was then Secretary of State and could have told his nephew that he had a residency issue.  Simply put, the ambitious younger Manchin did not reside in the right county for the senate seat he wanted.  As a result, an embarassed Joe Manchin had to wait until 1986 for his next shot at the state senate.  He won that time, serving until 1996.

But just when Joe Manchin's career appeared to finally be on the upswing, a political scandal occurred that would rock the Manchin family to its very core.  Beloved A. James, now elected to the office of State Treasurer, had lost over $200 million in state money through poor investments.

Many political observers wondered aloud if A. James was up to the more responsible, financial position of State Treasurer when he first was elected to that post in 1984.  Could the man best known for florid oratory manage funds?  At first, A. James seemed to quash his critics, showing a balance sheet that had produced remarkable gains in the state's investment portfolio.  But just as quickly, the state's stocks plummeted, leaving legislative officials little choice but to ask for A. James's resignation.

At first, A. James bucked such a notion.  After all, he was just one step away from being Governor, and he longed to show people he could do that job, too.  Before the investment scandal, such a thought was not a total impossibility.  A. James had built up his popularity over the years to over 70 percent, the highest of any statewide official.

What was going through his nephew, Joe's, mind as impeachment proceedings got underway to remove his beloved Uncle A. James?  Whatever he felt about his family's plight, he also had to worry that his own political career was in the dumpster.  After all, the name "Manchin" had now become synonymous with incomptence and scandal.


Uncle A. James finally resigned and Joe Manchin was able to start rebuilding his own hopes for the future. For ten years in the State Senate, he cut a more conservative figure than many southern Democrats.  Like Bill Clinton at the national level, he tried to style himself as a "New Democrat," one that was more in tune with the times and less likely to be beholden to the unions.  He even voted pro-life.

By 1996, he felt ready to attempt to put away the ghost of his Uncle A. James.  He would run for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Joe Manchin felt that he had paid his dues.  The union bosses and many traditional Democrats disagreed.  Manchin wasn't perceived as one of them, no matter how much he smiled and tried to court their support.  They preferred one of their own, Kanawha State Senator Charlotte Pritt.  Pritt was a dynamic, attractive, labor Democrat.  Ironically, though poles apart politically, Manchin and Pritt were said to be very good friends as colleagues.

That friendship ended during the 1996 primary, however, as Manchin ripped into Pritt unmercifully with ads that went so far as to suggest that Pritt wanted to teach sex education to primary school children.  For her part, Pritt gave as good as she got, having her grassroots army shout at Manchin at every campaign stop, "How low can you go, Joe?"  The bitter Democratic race could not have worked out better for the eventual Republican nominee, former Governor Cecil Underwood.   Charlotte Pritt won handily over Manchin in the end.  Republicans rejoiced.


In West Virginia politics, those defeated in a party primary typically ask how they can help the new party nominee or just go home quietly.  For example, when Arch Moore defeated Cecil Underwood in their own contentious Governor's primary in 1968, Underwood asked Moore afterwards, "What would you like me to do?"  To this, Moore reportedly replied, "Absolutely nothing."  Underwood respected this request.

But Joe Manchin had been so certain he would prevail not only in the 1996 Democratic Primary but also the General Election later that year.  Having already seen himself as a young Governor in his mind, perhaps he could simply not accept his defeat at the hands of his old and dear friend, Charlotte Pritt.

So if she had denied him his dream of Governor, he decided Pritt would have to be denied, too--even if it confirmed in many Democrats' minds that charming Joe had a selfish streak underneath that didn't really care about the Democratic Party's fortunes.

Enlisting the help of some of his top campaign strategists, Joe Manchin gave his approval to the organization that became known as "Democrats for Underwood."  For traditional Democrats backing Pritt, along with many other party faithful, this was the last straw.  They might have excused Manchin's negative attack ads as typical fare for a primary fight.

But now the primary was over--and Joe Manchin was helping Underwood beat the Democratic nominee?   Worst of all for Democrats, the "Democrats for Underwood" organization gave the 74 year old Republican Governor extra loft, just enough to beat Pritt in November.  Manchin was branded the ultimate "Judas" among many in his party for what appeared to them to be crass, revenge tactics against one of his own.


The combination of Manchin's primary election loss in 1996, combined with his perceived treachery of hurting Pritt's campaign against Underwood, threw the 48 year old former legislator into the political wilderness. He returned to Marion County to his family business, including coal brokering, pondering how he could ever make a comeback.  Had he won the battle against Pritt but lost the war?

Gradually, he began the extraordinarily difficult work of reaching out to the union bosses in the Democratic Party who had preferred Charlotte Pritt to him in the 1996 primary.   Manchin had learned that he was going to have to change his conservative stripes whenever necessary in order to become the kind of candidate labor leaders and others could get behind.    This work of transforming himself into whatever labor wanted took Manchin four long years, with continued maintenance after that.  Even then, his political strength was not up for another run for Governor.  He had to start smaller.

Little surprise, then, that Manchin once again found himself copying his Uncle A. James in 2000 and running for his old office as Secretary of State.  A. James had blazed the trail for young Joe early in his political life, pointing him to the House of Delegates. Now, Joe would pattern himself after "Uncle Jimmy" again, this time as Secretary of State.  Manchin had finally won his first statewide office at age 53, after a lifetime in politics.  But few thought that he had run to remain in Uncle A. James's shadow.  All expected Manchin to run for Governor at his first decent opportunity.

That opportunity came earlier than expected, following a sex scandal that ended Democratic Governor Bob Wise's hopes for a second term in 2004. With Wise out of the way, Charlotte Pritt retired from politics, and the union leaders behind him this time, Manchin bested Republican Monty Warner and became Governor of West Virginia, following the 2004 election.  He promptly ordered 17 new flatscreen TVs to adorn the walls at the Governor's Mansion--at taxpayers' expense, of course.


Manchin's term and a half as Governor was, like most administrations, unremarkable, save for the benefit the state received from the surge in the coal market, which helped the state keep its budgets balanced year to year without huge new taxes.

Perhaps the most remarkable facet of Manchin's time as Governor--a job he had wanted all of his political life--was that many in political circles had already figured out that Manchin wasn't so much interested in his current job.  Rather, Manchin was just waiting it out in the Governor's Office until his next job opportunity presented itself:  the U.S. Senate seat held by aging Senator Robert C. Byrd, a legendary Democrat from Raleigh County and Fairfax, Va.

Just as Manchin had focused more on the State Senate than on his House of Delegates job, and just as he looked forward more to being Governor than at his post as Secretary of State, now that he had even achieved the role of Governor, Manchin spent time working out how he could succeed Robert Byrd as the state's new U.S. Senator in Washington, D.C.  Manchin, who had spent a lifetime in politics asserting that he knew how to produce new jobs due to his private sector experience, seemed far more interested in securing one more job for himself.

However, Robert Byrd had other plans.  For years, the oldest member of the U.S. Senate knew that Manchin and others had him on a death watch. Indeed, Byrd had looked shaky for years.   Still, Byrd continued to survive, being helped into the same seat in the U.S. Senate that he had occupied for half a century.   Manchin would just have to wait, because clearly, Robert Byrd would never resign from the U.S. Senate.  He would die in office.

Meanwhile, Manchin had some significant tests to his leadership skills as Governor.  For example, the Sago and later the Upper Big Branch Mine disasters made him a national figure, earning him some good publicity as well as some arched eyebrows.  Manchin was generally given good marks by the national media for his handling of the two events.  At Sago, which occurred early in Manchin's tenure, the nation saw first hand the personal sorrow of the families.  Mine disasters were supposed to be a thing of the past, but Sago showed a different picture.

While Manchin seemed generally in control and empathetic to the Sago families, he made one of the most serious gaffes ever made by a West Virginia Governor in a disaster setting.  After waiting for any news, pro or con, about the miners, their families finally went home dejected, as they began to come to terms with the fact that their men were likely not going to return from the mine alive.  National news reporters confirmed this sentiment, suggesting that, if no one had been heard from yet, time had just about run out.

Suddenly, after the miners' families had put their children to bed, Manchin came forward unexpectedly and excitedly with news that he had new information leading him to believe that all the miners were going to come out alive!  Children were roused from their sleep by their mothers, telling them the good news that the Governor had for them.  The Sago families had hope again and returned to the mine site, with the national media catching their excitement.  There was only one problem:  Manchin's "new information" was terribly wrong.  There was no mass rescue that night, and eventually, only one miner came out alive.

Many puzzled over Manchin's behavior that night.  Did he really have hope, based on some new data, that somehow all the miners would come out alive?  Or was it a political stunt, poorly timed, to be the "good news guy" that politicians enjoy being, whether at a disaster like Sago or simply delivering a check for a new sewer project?  Either way, Manchin showed that he was a rookie on the national stage.


Manchin's desire to blame others is another standard political stunt, one that he may believe works while making even close associates roll their eyes. When his daughter, Heather Manchin Bresch, failed to prove that she had earned an MBA degree from West Virginia University, Manchin acted as though it was WVU's fault.  "I just hope no other parents have to endure this kind of thing at WVU," Manchin said.

In fact, Heather Manchin Bresch had made WVU students, faculty, and alumni endure quite a lot, due to her false claims of this prestigious business degree.  One state senator, whose young family member went to WVU for the same degree, said during the crisis, "I hope that no hardworking student who earned their degree will have the value of their MBA diminished by this."

Academic credibility was a serious concern--and it seemed difficult to believe that Joe Manchin, who had interfered with the WVU/Marshall football series, was not somehow involved in this more important matter to his family.   The fact that the young WVU President, Mike Garrison, had been put into his office with the help of Manchin indicated a closeness between the two men.   So did the fact that Garrison had taken Heather Manchin to the prom in high school.

As a result of one powerful man's daughter refusing to back down on what were later seen to be false claims to earning an MBA, the following occurred:

1.  WVU President Mike Garrison had to resign after just one year in office;

2.  Several other WVU officials, including Garrison's legal counsel, Provost, and Business School Dean resigned;

3.  A costly, blue-ribbon panel was convened to discover the truth of the matter.

Had Heather Manchin Bresch received any good parental counsel from her important father, none of these results would have occurred. All that would have been required was for Bresch to say she made a mistake.  Perhaps if she could have even produced one cancelled check to show a tuition payment for her alleged work she might have had a leg to stand on.

For then Governor Manchin to act as though he and his wife, Gayle, were somehow the victims of this hoax that almost cost WVU its academic credibility was the low ebb of the Manchin Administration.  While other Governors had always shown great pride towards the state's largest public university, the Manchins were seen as people willing to destroy its reputation rather than admit a mistake.


Manchin ended his administration on two notes:  one up and one down.  Robert Byrd had finally passed away, giving Manchin an opportunity to be the respectful successor-in-waiting, honoring Byrd with proclamations, funeral oratory, and the like.  As Governor, he had to appoint Byrd's immediate successor.  Appointing himself would be too obvious, so he tapped a younger generation member of one of Manchin's favorite political families.  Carte Goodwin, a thirtysomething attorney, would serve as Manchin's placeholder until the election for the balance of the unexpired term.

That was the good news:  Manchin could see himself finally on his way to D.C.  He had been waiting for over five years as Governor for this opportunity, and now it was finally upon him.  The bad news was that Carte's cousin, Booth, was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia and his office had begun an investigation into Manchin's Administration, looking into possible financial wrongdoing.  One can only imagine the effect on Manchin, whether guilty or innocent, of hearing that, like Uncle A. James, his office was under investigation for financial improprieties.

Would the curse of Uncle A. James never end?   A. James had passed away a few years before Senator Byrd, leaving this earth in style.  A. James's coffin was placed on an old-fashioned, black, glass-windowed, hearse.  Drawn by six black horses with black plumes on their heads, A. James had given one more performance for his closest friends.  But now, A. James's problems at the Treasurer's Office seemed to be coming back to life for Manchin as the federal investigation wore on for many months--right in the middle of his new campaign for U.S. Senate.

Some speculated if Manchin had tapped Carte Goodwin to be the interim U.S. Senator to develop some extra friendship with his U.S. Attorney cousin, Booth Goodwin, whose job it was to direct the investigation against the Manchin Administration. When only one small indictment on a bit player came out at the end of this lengthy, broadly-scoped federal investigation into the Manchin Administration, even a federal judge hearing the evidence voiced surprise that nothing more had come out of it.  Manchin, whether through actual innocence or friends upstairs in the Obama Administration, had escaped his Uncle A. James's fate.

Because nothing had come out on the federal investigation into Manchin during the campaign, Manchin's Republican opponent, John Raese, made no use of it. Raese likes to note that he has never run any personally negative campaign ads, though he has shown a willingness to make effective use of sharp, issue-based ads.  Despite Manchin's lifetime in politics, two elections to the office of Governor, and statewide universal name recognition, Raese was able to pull ahead halfway through their contest in fall of 2010 for the unexpired term of Robert Byrd, a two-year term that is up in 2012.

Only through a historically heavy TV ad buy of the most personal of attacks on Raese and his family was Manchin able to regain the lead and win the 2010 special election.  Special elections, by their very nature, have only a fraction of the turnout of a Presidential year General Election such as 2012 brings with Barack Obama's re-election campaign.  One might think of the 2010 special election's turnout as the equivalent of a Congressional District election or even a large State Senate election--only with the voters spread out across the state.

That's a different cross-section of voters than the much larger turnout a Presidential election year brings.  Manchin was able to beat back Raese in the special election subset of voters.  But a Presidential election year, with Obama at the top of Manchin's ticket, could be more problematic for him.


Some political wags joke that Joe Manchin probably thinks it's time for President Obama to recognize that he needs a new Vice President: Joe Manchin!  After all, it's been a year: isn't it about time for Joe to move on to something bigger?

President Barack Obama is the leader of Joe Manchin's party, and Manchin has shown a general willingness to go along and get along with the top Democrats in D.C. over the past year, liberal leaders like Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.   Obama was defeated in West Virginia by a huge number of votes in the Democratic Primary in West Virginia, with a 2-1 majority favoring Hillary Clinton.  Obama also lost in the general election in West Virginia to U.S. Senator John McCain, his Republican opponent.

Obama wasn't any more popular when Joe Manchin ran in 2010, and West Virginians watched as Manchin tried mightily to distance himself from his unpopular President, never having him visit West Virginia once on his behalf.  But now Obama's popularity is at an all-time low. Moreover, Manchin has voted for Obamacare in the Senate re-vote on that costly and unpopular program.

In addition, Manchin has gone with Senator Harry Reid's budget as opposed to the Republican alternative that would have streamlined government further. Manchin has even voted to send taxpayer dollars to pay for Planned Parenthood abortions, a huge disappointment to his pro-life supporters.

Manchin does all these things in order to fit in, just as he did when he reoriented his politics following his defeat by Charlotte Pritt.  Some of this is practical politics.  But after awhile, it is hard to tell what Manchin really believes.  For example, Manchin told Wanda Franz and Karen Cross of West Virginians for Life that he would be a reliable vote for their cause, earning a co-endorsement with John Raese from their powerful group in 2010.

But in order to be a good liberal Democrat at the national level, in his first year as a U.S. Senator, Manchin has voted for tax dollars to pay for Planned Parenthood abortions.  Shocked pro-lifers across West Virginia saw a calculating side of Manchin they had not seen before.

Manchin has been in insider's insider from the beginning of his childhood, watching his family held in high esteem in Farmington or his Uncle A. James bellowing before a crowd, shaking hands, or dancing a jig on stage.  Manchin appears to covet being on the inside at all times, even to the point of changing his political convictions to fit in.

Whether that kind of political dealmaker is what West Virginians want for the next six years in their U.S. Senator is an open question.  West Virginians have historically shown a certain starstruck quality when it comes to their statewide politicians.  Yet the state's growing Tea Party movement suggests that many voters here are relying on themselves more and on their elected leaders a lot less.

This political current may make Joe Manchin yesterday's candidate next year, even though he appears to be riding high now. No doubt, West Virginians in both parties will be entertained to see how the great escape artist of West Virginia politics tries to distance himself further from his friend, Barack Obama, in the months leading to the 2012 election.

Time will tell if the Harry Houdini of West Virginia politics can escape one more time--of if John Raese will find a way to bring Manchin's political reign to an end.