West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has emerged as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the passing of Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda, declaring he will vote against a key voting rights bill and also blocking reform of the filibuster – a rule that at the moment allows Republicans to kill Democrat legislation.
Yet Manchin is no Republican. He is a key member of Biden’s party, and in a 50-50 Senate his vote is the lynchpin of political power and crucial for passing Biden’s plans. Yet Manchin is seen by many Democrats as sabotaging his own president’s efforts to be a transformational leader who can help the US recover from the pandemic in the same way Roosevelt helped America recover from the Great Depression.
To many people outside West Virginia, Manchin’s behavior is a mystery: how does someone take such a stand against their own side? But for many West Virginian Democrats Manchin’s tactics and those of his state West Virginia Democratic party leadership are no surprise at all.
In fact, examining West Virginia’s Democratic politics shows that Manchin’s undermining of Biden’s efforts, especially around voting rights, should have been entirely expected.
Manchin’s opposition to the For the People Act, a bill that aims to expand voting rights and reduce the influence of money in US elections, has angered Black Americans across the country. But earlier this year, West Virginia’s all-white Democratic party leaders submitted a draft affirmative action plan to the national party without input or approval from a newly formed affirmative action committee, a group whose membership includes women, people of color and people with disabilities.
Affirmative action committee co-chair Hollis Lewis said moving the plan forward without any input from the committee – or any Black Americans at all – was unacceptable for communities of color in the state. “As a Black West Virginian, this is a slap in the face,” he said.
Lewis linked Manchin’s stance against the national voting rights bill to the Democratic fight over the affirmative action plan in West Virginia, saying it showed he and party leaders in his state would rather maintain control than work to empower traditionally marginalized people.
“These two incidents happened the very same week – and they parallel each other,” said Lewis. “You’re making a decision based on how you feel about something that’s not necessarily going to affect you.”
In numerous interviews, West Virginia Democrats and people of color described a party at odds with their needs and belief and in thrall to Manchin’s power and conservatism.
Mary Ann Claytor, an affirmative action committee member and 2020 candidate for state auditor, said she felt ignored by West Virginia’s party leadership when she won her primary race. Claytor, who is Black, says a county-level leader told her in confidence that members of party leadership said they didn’t think a Black, working-class woman could win an election in West Virginia.
In an interview with the Guardian, Claytor said Manchin’s decisions in the Senate plus West Virginia’s state party politics are indicative of an issue that extends beyond race: a resistance by Democratic power structures in West Virginia to bring working-class people, women or any marginalized group into the party.
“We hear a lot about how progressives can’t win,” she said. “They kept putting people down. Like, ‘Oh, they’re not going to win. [Manchin] is the only person going to win, because he has that much money in his war chest.’”
Manchin’s office rejected an interview request for this article. Multiple interview requests sent to the West Virginia Democratic party leadership went unanswered.
Critics say the state party and power-brokering Democrats such as Manchin are quick to dismiss the loyalty Black Americans have consistently put forth in supporting Democratic candidates. “They want the power concentrated where it’s at,” Peshka Calloway, a Black organizer for Democratic issues and a US army veteran, said of the WVDP leadership.
A native of Parkersburg, West Virginia, Calloway was working for Planned Parenthood when Manchin unexpectedly showed up at an NAACP state conference she was attending in 2018. She confronted him afterwards about whether he would support former President Trump’s nomination of supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh, a controversial candidate because of views on abortion and historical allegations of sexual assault.
“How are you voting on Kavanaugh?” she asked. “I hope it’s a no because I’m a survivor of military sexual assault, and what I’m hearing about him is absolutely disgusting.” Manchin replied that he “was facing a hard decision” and would do his best.
Two months later, he was the only Democrat in the Senate who voted to appoint Kavanaugh.
Natalie Cline sees the Democratic party as excluding working-class constituents in the state. Cline secured the Democratic nomination for the US House of Representatives in 2020, when she won her primary race with 74% of the vote. She identifies as a “true blue Democrat” and grew up in a working-class family where both of her grandfathers had union jobs.
After winning her primary, she said the state party offered her campaign no support or publicity despite endorsements from well-known names such as Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and actors Debra Messing and Rosie O’Donnell.
“I can’t tell you how many times I would send emails to the state party and say: ‘Can you please share this information? We need people to watch’ – to no response.”
Cline now believes that promoting inclusion within the party puts a target on a candidate’s back: seek to make good on the Democratic promise of being a “big-tent” party and get shut out by Manchin and his state party.
One of the most baffling moments from her campaign and a sign, she said, of party’s disconnect with working-class people, came when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) simultaneously endorsed Manchin and her opponent – a Republican who months later would vote to restrict individuals’ rights to unionize.
“I didn’t feel that they [the Democratic party] cared. If they cared, they would be yelling and screaming,” she said. “They would have called the UMWA out on it. But heaven forbid they do that, because that might jeopardize Manchin’s endorsement.”
David Fryson, who retired this year as a vice-president at West Virginia University, said the decline of the WVDP can be traced back to 1996. Before Manchin was senator, he lost his gubernatorial primary to Charlotte Pritt, an environmentalist hailed as a forward-thinking Democrat. Instead of throwing his weight behind Pritt, Manchin actively campaigned for Pritt’s Republican opponent, Cecil Underwood, who went on to win.
Manchin’s embrace of conservatism continued. In 2012, he was listed as the only Democratic senator to serve as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), a conservative nonprofit that focuses on reducing business regulations, weakening labor unions, loosening environmental conservation efforts and restricting voting rights.
“What I’m trying to do, in my little way, is convince the Democrats to be careful going down the rabbit hole with with Joe Manchin,” said Fryson. “He will end up … doing to the national Democratic party what he’s done to the West Virginia Democratic Party. And he’s already doing it.”