Columnist John Sheirer: My former home among the hills

  • Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks to reporters as he arrives at a hearing on July 21. Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary

Published: 8/7/2022 3:03:20 PM
Modified: 8/7/2022 3:00:03 PM

West Virginia has been oddly prominent in national politics since 2020. The state’s senior senator, Joe Manchin (along with Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema), is often the deciding vote for legislation in the Senate. He annoys national Democrats beyond measure, but his recent embrace of ambitious climate and economic initiatives is a hopeful reversal.

Manchin’s state has a big role in my personal history. My mother was born and raised in rural West Virginia. My father used to joke that Mom was kind of a hillbilly. But Dad was pretty far from being a cosmopolitan sophisticate, considering he grew up in rural Pennsylvania, barely 20 miles from West Virginia’s eastern panhandle.

I was raised on the same little Pennsylvania farm as my dad, and we made many family trips to visit my mother’s relatives in West Virginia. Even though the famous Mason-Dixon line separates my parents’ birth homes, those sections of the two states were pretty much geographically and culturally indistinguishable.

After high school (52 in our graduating class), I chose West Virginia Wesleyan College. WVWC offered generous scholarships, and the three-hour drive from home made it feel like I was on my own while still connected to my family. The small, liberal arts college was filled with wonderful people and surrounded by farmland and hills that reminded me of home.

A few years later, I landed my first full-time teaching job at Parkersburg Community College on West Virginia’s western border. Along with bright students and dedicated colleagues, the key memory from my year there is that the state always seemed days away from financial collapse. In fact, the governor threatened to withhold teachers’ paychecks several times for suspect “budgetary” reasons. Those were the days of paper paychecks, so I had a few anxious moments when my paycheck arrived a week late as rent came due. I prefer my current community college teaching job in Connecticut where my salary has appeared on time through direct deposit for the past three decades.

I always chuckle when people think I’m some kind of elitist because I work in education. I treasure my rural roots. But I’ve looked on with sadness as “my home among the hills” has become a hotbed of disturbing extremism. Trump carried Bedford County, Pennsylvania, with 83% of the vote in 2020, and he won West Virginia with nearly 70%. Trump and his Republican enablers have done nothing to help the people there. Instead, they’ve exploited the residents’ religious faith, work ethic, and generational distrust of government while leaving them to fend for themselves against the inevitable economic changes that have left them behind.

Things weren’t always this way. John F. Kennedy’s campaign tour of West Virginia in 1960 invigorated his commitment to economic justice. Kennedy won the state by 5%. Back then, my parents were somewhere between Eisenhower Republicans and Kennedy Democrats. That would make them mainstream Democrats today. The Republican Party, by contrast, has lurched far to the right, starting with Ronald Reagan, accelerating with Newt Gingrich, and devolving into insanity during the current insurrectionary Trumpaplooza. Back when I was a college student in West Virginia, Jimmy Carter won the state over Ronald Reagan by 4%. And the year I taught in Parkersburg, Mike Dukakis bested George Bush Sr. among West Virginians by 5%. Those results are unthinkable today.

Sen. Manchin, West Virginia’s only remaining Democrat holding statewide office, infamously helped doom President Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” legislation last year. That move not only damaged Democrats politically, but, more importantly, Manchin also hurt the nation by scuttling programs that would have provided much-needed help to the vast majority of everyday Americans — especially West Virginians. Manchin is one of the most frustrating politicians in the country, often teasing his Democratic colleagues with the possibility of support before ultimately yanking his vote time after time. As Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono so aptly summed up Manchin’s disproportionate role, “a 50-50 Senate sucks.”

Overall, there are three important things to keep in mind about Manchin: First, he’s better than every Republican in the Senate. While Manchin deserves criticism for impeding legislation in Congress, he’s nowhere near the anchor around the neck of the American people as the Republicans who flail desperately to block any legislation to help the nation. Senate Republicans are best represented by cynical Ted Cruz, who recently shared a celebratory fist-bump with his Republican colleagues after blocking a bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.

Second, Manchin is better than anyone West Virginia might elect to replace him, likely an unhinged Trumpublican. Any successor would be far worse. I was deeply surprised and slightly optimistic recently because Manchin actively supports major legislation for the good of the country.

Third, and most important, West Virginia may be “almost heaven,” but Manchin shouldn’t have such godlike power. His state has less than 1% of the country’s population. If Democrats can flip Senate seats in some bigger Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, for example), then Manchin will return to an appropriately limited role. He won’t have such oversized impact on legislation that affects the whole country. Best of all, Democrats will have a real chance to break the Republican blockade and help the American people.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. His latest book is the award-winning, “Stumbling Through Adulthood: Linked Stories.” Find him at JohnSheirer.com.
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