CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Joe Manchin is one of the nation’s most popular governors and a centrist Democrat who the state AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce are practically begging to have in the U.S. Senate.
Even so, not everyone is onboard.
When he reflects on his five and half years in office, Manchin touts getting the state’s fiscal house in order, working well with all parties and attempting to balance environmental and energy policies.
Liberals, including those in the left-most wing of the Democratic Party, acknowledge Manchin’s work to control spending and pay down debt. But they also say Manchin got a lucky break; that he rode a strong economy, pushed few major initiatives and maintains a myopic, coal-centered approach to the state’s future.
If Manchin runs for the open Senate seat, as expected, Washington is highly likely to gain another Democrat. The governor supported health care reform and is behind the Obama administration’s education reforms.
But during a speech Monday to the Rotary Club of Charleston, Manchin suggested he might be at odds with portions of the president’s economic, energy and environmental agendas.
That might not be a bad political plan, given President Barack Obama’s deep unpopularity in West Virginia. A recent poll found Obama has only a 35 percent job approval rating in the state.
But Delegate Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha, who attended the Rotary Club speech, said she thought Manchin sounded more like a Republican.
“That didn’t sound like a talk by a centrist Democrat; that sounded like a talk by a centrist Republican,” she said.
Guthrie, who has recently been at odds with the Manchin administration, said she isn’t sure how much Obama would be able to count on a vote from Manchin in the Senate.
“I wouldn’t be looking to Joe Manchin for any help,” she said.
Manchin has been a prominent critic of the Obama administration’s environmental and energy policies. He says the president is in danger of hurting the nation’s economy by affecting the availability and price of coal.
He calls for “balance” between energy production and the environment.
Environmentalists call Manchin’s approach anything but balanced.
“I don’t think he cares very much about the environment,” said Joe Lovett, one of the state’s leading environmental lawyers.
Lovett said he doesn’t care one way or the other about Manchin’s party affiliation.
“I don’t think George Bush was very good for the environment; he was a Republican. And I don’t think Joe Manchin is either, and he’s a Democrat,” he said.
Lovett said Manchin “seems to be like a ostrich with his head in the sand” on global warming and has not done enough to curb mountaintop removal mining.
Manchin has touted state land use laws that he says are more stringent than the national standards.
Lovett noted that the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who is selected by Manchin, has been critical of regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that the governor is, too.
“He does what we can do to make sure southern West Virginia’s mountains, forests and streams are destroyed forever, leaving little legacy,” Lovett said.
Guthrie said the state has not done enough to support renewable energy.
In 2009 Manchin signed the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, which requires 10 percent of electricity sold in the state be produced using alternative or renewable energy sources by 2015. This figure increases to 25 percent by 2025. Republicans have criticized it, calling it a “mini cap and trade,” but liberals say it’s not enough, criticizing the act for being too lenient and allowing the use of non-renewable resources like cleaner-burning natural gas or even coal, provided it’s “clean coal.”
“That renewable energy portfolio was nothing more than words on a page,” Guthrie said.
Manchin is widely credited for bringing the state budget under control and for creating a plan and funding sources for paying down massive worker’s comp and teacher retirement debts, all while reducing taxes.
“He’s done a really good job about paying down the debt,” said Ted Boettner, the executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a liberal but nonpartisan think tank. “Nobody denies that. You’ve got to give him all the credit in the world for doing that.”
Since 2005, the state budget has shrunk as compared to the state’s gross domestic product.
In 2005, the $3.4 billion budget was 6.45 percent of the state’s $53 billion economy; in 2008, the $3.8 billion budget was 6.2 percent of the state’s $61 billion economy, according to the most recent figures available from the Center on Budget and Policy.
“He really does believe – unlike some of the people – in less government,” Boettner said.
But Boettner’s group and Manchin have been at odds. The center argues for investing more in social programs, which Boettner said Manchin hasn’t done enough of.
“He didn’t create really any new programs, other than a few things here and there,” Boettner said
State House Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said Manchin has been “a little slow on the uptake” on health care issues.
“I felt like in many cases we were so afraid of shooting ourselves in the foot, we wouldn’t even take a step,” Perdue said.
Perdue said he has always been frustrated that the Manchin administration didn’t take advantage of a bill passed in 2004, during Gov. Bob Wise’s last year in office, that would have attempted to set price controls for prescription drugs.
Critics said the bill may have been unconstitutional and a small state like West Virginia couldn’t have done much to budge national drug companies, but Perdue said testing the law and provoking a lawsuit could have had national ramifications, emboldening larger states to follow suit.
But Perdue said Manchin never implemented the bill.
“We did something no other state had done,” he said. “The only thing we didn’t do is after we put it in writing, in ink – we filed it away.”
Perdue added, “It would have had national impact, national importance, but the fear of antagonizing the drug industry is palpable.”
But Perdue, who voted against worker’s compensation reforms, said if a person wanted to know what Manchin had accomplished, they wouldn’t have to look much farther.
“He did a good thing,” he said. “He did something that needed to be done.”
Boettner said part of the reason Manchin was able to begin paying off the debts was the state reaped revenue from the massive tobacco settlement and enjoyed a relatively strong economy at the beginning of his term.
While Manchin has been known for saying “no” to new spending, Boettner said the governor has not had to deal with a situation where there would be deep cuts or potential tax increases.
“He never had to take one of those really unpopular positions,” Boettner said.
Perdue also has been critical of the governor’s unwillingness to spend more money on providing in-home care for seniors or on drug abuse prevention programs.
“Our substance abuse policy in West Virginia is kind of tattered and worn and faded,” Perdue said.
Manchin administration officials would say it’s their tough decisions that have kept the state from having to make tough decisions.
And they have said recently and repeatedly they are preparing the state to weather a couple of rough budget years, including a 2012 budget where the state will have to fill a $160 million budget gap, largely a product of the expiration of federal stimulus money and declining tax revenue. Adding new programs isn’t the best way to save money.
But all the criticisms are unlikely to affect Manchin’s chances for the Senate seat.
The governor’s popularity is extremely high in the state.
A poll last week by Rasmussen Reports of 500 “likely voters” found Manchin would win 53 percent of the vote in a Senate race against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, if the election were held today.
Capito, the state’s most formidable Republican, is still deciding whether she will run. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.
“We appreciate everyone’s comments, and I think it’s important to note that if you know this governor, then you know that this governor welcomes everyone’s input, positive or negative,” said Manchin spokeswoman Sara Payne Scarbro.
Even Guthrie said, given those poll numbers, the governor should go ahead and appoint himself to the Senate seat.
But she takes issue with the way the governor has been presenting himself lately.
“What I do take exception to is the narrative he has been painting for the last six years that he came from humble beginnings,” Guthrie said.
Manchin grew up in a three-bedroom garage apartment in Farmington, population 387. He and four siblings – Janet, John, Rocky and Paula – shared a single room packed with bunk beds.
He worked in his father’s furniture and carpet store as a young man, and eventually ran the carpet store. But he also later brokered coal and energy deals and owned Enersystems Inc., an energy brokering company, while serving as secretary of state.
“Everybody knows he made his money as coal broker, and if everybody doesn’t, they should know it,” Guthrie said.
Perdue said the governor could use his political abilities to attract liberals if he wanted to but so far he hasn’t.
“I don’t think he’s ever tried to gain the support of that group. He hasn’t turned his considerable abilities in that direction,” Perdue said. “That’s part of the problem – the kind of lack of connection between the more liberal side of the party and the governor.”