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Jay Rockefeller: A Voice of Reason, and Vision

Ed Chen

Posted June 27, 2012

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Jay Rockefeller is quite the truth-teller.  I was reminded of that when he discussed the future of coal while opposing a bid in the Senate last week to repeal historic public health protections against mercury pollution from power plants.

Candor is a trait I came to appreciate very quickly about Rockefeller after we met more than two decades ago---he as the junior senator from West Virginia and I a congressional reporter.

Our earliest conversations were all about the raging issues of the day on Capitol Hill. Soon we began enjoying lively exchanges about other common interests, from domestic politics to global affairs, especially Asia -- a special interest of his.

Often these chats turned personal. We commiserated over our grueling and unpredictable hours--the bane of everyone who reports to work daily on the Hill. We exchanged book recommendations. I talked about books I wanted to write; he rarely failed to ask about my progress, in a gentle but prodding manner. 

Eventually Rockefeller grew comfortable enough to speak openly (but on an off-the-record basis) about the internal dynamics and the byzantine folkways of the Senate--and about the many colorful personalities in it.

But Rockefeller was not one for idle gossip. His observations invariably served to illustrate some larger point, observations that often provided me fresh insights about the institution and its occupants in ways that informed my reportage.

I thought about those conversations---and Rockefeller's penchant for telling it like it is—after he delivered a remarkable speech during Senate debate against a measure to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency's recently-issued safeguards that protect the public from mercury and other toxic air pollutants spewed by power plants.

As he inveighed against repeal, Rockefeller spoke from his heart and from his head.

``I oppose this resolution because I care so much about West Virginians. Without good health, it's difficult to hold down a job or live the American dream. Chronic illness is debilitating and impacts a family's income, prosperity and ultimately its happiness,’’ he said. Then he added:

"The shift to a lower-carbon economy is not going away, and it's a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment."

By taking on the coal industry --- no small presence in West Virginia – Rockefeller provoked a lively debate throughout the state.

Here’s what the Charleston Gazette said in an editorial: ``West Virginians should take Rockefeller’s words to heart…West Virginians understandably worry that a way of life and the dignity of a job is at stake. Change and uncertainty in the coal industry is unsettling… But pretending that the world is not changing is no answer.’’

Rockefeller’s speech inspired widespread speculation that the five-term senator may be thinking about his legacy--meaning retirement. I heard it even yesterday from a lunch companion who had served in the Senate with Rockefeller for decades.

I have a different theory, though. Rockefeller was acting as he always has – with the best interests of his constituents in mind. And that’s something he has done since that day more than 40 years ago when he put down roots in Emmons, W. Va., as a young VISTA volunteer to begin a career of public service.

When Rockefeller spoke up the other day in favor of clean air --- now and for all time – he was simply showing his concern and affection for the good people of West Virginia.

 The 46 senators who voted unsuccessfully to repeal the clean air protections should look to Jay Rockefeller as a role model.




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