Governor of West Virginia
Born Joseph Manchin III, August 24, 1947, in Farmington, WV; married Gayle Conelly, c. 1968; children: Heather, Joseph IV, Brooke. Education: West Virginia University, B.S., 1970.
Addresses: Office—1900 Kanawha Blvd. East, Charleston, WV 25305.
Owner of a carpet store in Marion County, WV, 1980s; elected to West Virginia's House of Delegates, 1982, and to the state senate, 1987 and 1992; elected West Virginia secretary of state, 2000, and governor, 2004. Vice chair, Democratic Governors Association.
Tragedy elevated West Virginia governor Joe Manchin to national prominence in early 2006, when an explosion at his state's Sago Mine trapped several workers underground. As the first day stretched into a second, and rescue teams worked to free the men, Manchin was a frequent presence on national news coverage of the event. The first-term Democrat was commended for his handling of his state's worst mining accident in 37 years, and afterward he promised the coal-mining industry that it would face tougher safety regulations to prevent future casualties.
Manchin was born in 1947 in Farmington, West Virginia, a small town in the northern part of the state. His father's side of the family would produce other future politicians, including Manchin's uncle, a longtime state lawmaker who served as West Virginia treasurer in the 1980s, and a cousin who served in the state senate. Manchin's father owned a furniture store, and his mother was a former basketball prodigy who encouraged her son's athletic pursuits. In high school, he lettered in four sports (baseball, football, basketball, and track), and though several colleges expressed interest in him, he accepted a football scholarship from West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Manchin's stint as a WVU Mountaineer ended with a knee injury. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in business administration, and entered the family business. After running his own carpet store in Marion County for a number of years, he entered politics in 1982 when he ran for a seat in the lower house of the West Virginia legislature, the House of Delegates. Elected to a two-year term, he went on to win a seat in the West Virginia state senate in 1987. In 1992 he won a second five-year term; four years later he made his first run for the governor's office, but lost in the primary race.
In 2000, West Virginia voters elected Manchin their next secretary of state by a large margin. He ran again for governor in 2004, and this time won the primary and then pulled an impressive number of votes in the election. A moderate Democrat, Manchin sought to balance the interests of the state's business community with those of citizens who favored increased spending on essential services such as health and education. For more than a century West Virginia's economy had been heavily dependent on coal mining, and the state was the number-two producer of the energy source in the country. However, it was also among the bottom three nationwide in per-capita income. The site of violent labor-union clashes earlier in the twentieth century, West Virginia's coal-mining communities remained closely linked to the corporations which owned the majority of the state's 544 active mines.
Manchin was sworn in as governor on January 17, 2005. One of his first acts was to meet with both chambers of the state legislature in a special session to overhaul the state's workers' compensation system. Because of the unusually high number of occupational health risks associated with coal mining, West Virginia's agency that investigated claims of job injury and provided benefits to permanently disabled workers was overextended, and required some repair. Later that year Manchin clashed with one of the state's most powerful corporate executives, Don Blankenship, who filed suit against Manchin in July. Blankenship was president of Massey Energy, the fourth-largest U.S. coal producer, and had donated heavily to the political campaigns of pro-business candidates. He contributed to a bitter 2004 contest that ended with the ouster of a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals justice with a long and distinguished career as a labor-union supporter. In his suit against Manchin, Blankenship claimed that permit approvals for his businesses had been revoked as a form of retaliation for his campaign financing.
Manchin's toughest challenge came just before his one-year anniversary as governor. On January 2, 2006, he received word that there had been an explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, and several miners were trapped underground. Manchin was out of state at the time, in Atlanta, Georgia, to attend that day's Sugar Bowl, a college-football contest in which his alma mater was competing. He returned to West Virginia immediately, and met with rescue-team personnel as well as the families of the trapped miners, who had gathered near the mine entrance. He also sat for interviews with all the major news outlets, who had descended upon Tall-mansville to cover the story. At the end of the second day, word circulated that 12 men had been found alive, but by the time the morning-news broadcasts went on the air the next day, the rumor had been discounted, and Americans learned that only one miner, the youngest of the missing 13, had survived.
Manchin had appeared on media reports of the initially hopeful news, but was later criticized for speaking publicly before the outcome had been officially confirmed. Some of his candor was related to his own experience with mining disasters: in 1968, an explosion at a mine in his hometown of Farmington resulted in the loss of 78 lives, with his uncle and several friends from high school among the dead. The governor nevertheless won praise for spending hours with the grieving families, and for pledging to launch a full inquiry into the disaster.
A few weeks later, both West Virginia state legislatures voted to enact stricter mine safety rules. One of the bill's provisions required companies to provide wireless tracking devices for mine workers so that in the event of another emergency they could be more easily located by rescue personnel. The new laws also required mines to install reserve oxygen-supply stations underground; miners carry oxygen with them, but the canisters provide only an hour or so of air. It took more than forty hours for Sago teams to locate the trapped miners. Manchin also traveled to Washington, and urged Congress to pass stricter federal mine-safety rules.
West Virginia law limits Manchin to two terms as governor. Even before his impressive response to the Sago Mine disaster, political soothsayers predicted he might some day move on to the national stage. His name regularly came up in lists of future vice-presidential candidates for a 2008 or 2012 Democratic Party ticket. Manchin claimed to have little ambition to move beyond his beloved home state. "The only job that I'm interested in is what I do now, " the Houston Chronicle quoted him as saying. "This is the greatest job in the world."
Dominion Post (Morgantown, WV), January 2, 2006.
Houston Chronicle, January 29, 2006, p. 6.
New York Times, February 2, 2006, p. A15.
USA Today, January 5, 2006, p. 4A.
"Governor Promises to Make Mines Safer, " CNN. com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/01/22/mine.fire.ap/index.html (January 23, 2006).