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Rockefeller to Retire in '14 After 30 Years in Senate

Rockefeller to Retire in '14 After 30 Years in Senate

By Erin McPike - January 11, 2013

Democratic Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller will not seek a sixth term next year, he announced Friday at a poignant press conference in West Virginia.

One of the Senate’s richest members, Rockefeller dedicated the bulk of his life to public service and helping the poor in one of the nation’s most economically challenged states. He paid homage to the working class of West Virginia and laid out his proudest accomplishments in serving them during the lengthy event in Charleston.

“I hope that each of you and the state that I love can understand that this is an entirely personal decision -- here and here,” he said, putting his hand over his gut and then his heart.

Rockefeller’s wife, Sharon, introduced him. She began her commentary by telling the story of their engagement, which happened during a busy legislative season early in the lawmaker’s career. She then mentioned the births of the couple’s four children, and the years each one arrived.

“You should note that these were off-election years,” she said to laughter. The Rockefellers were flanked by photos of their family in political settings.

“It was not a political decision, and it has not been easy,” the veteran senator said of his choice. As he approaches “50 years in non-stop public service in West Virginia, 50 years of non-stop life precluding time with children and Sharon,” Rockefeller said he’s realized that there are other ways for him to contribute.

Several West Virginians, including one of the senator’s children, briefly paid tribute to his distinguished career after he spoke. But Rockefeller’s own remarks were the most detailed, and in them he thanked the people of his state, noting, “You all gave me what I always wanted: A real and almost spiritual sense of mission.”

He recognized the difficulties of the coal mining and steel industries found throughout the state, as well as the hardships West Virginians have faced, but he complimented them for being “incredibly hardworking” and resolute. He joked that they have also been “skeptical of me for quite a long time.”

The speech was laden with applause lines and peppered with explanations of policy fights and achievements the longtime lawmaker has endured and won.

A two-term governor of the state who was first elected to the Senate in 1984, Rockefeller was instrumental in shepherding health care reform through Congress in 2009-10. He had been a top ally of Bill Clinton’s during the first push for such legislation in the early ’90s, and used that experience to the Democrats’ advantage in the successful effort after Barack Obama won the presidency.

In a conversational manner, Rockefeller listed the benefits the Affordable Care Act will grant many West Virginia residents and concluded that portion of his remarks by saying, “Health care is a moral imperative, and finally it’s law.”

To that end, President Obama said in a statement Friday, “Jay has built an impressive legacy, one that can be found in the children who have better schools, the miners who have safer working conditions, the seniors who have retired with greater dignity, and the new industries that he helped bring to West Virginia.” He added, “A longtime champion of health care reform, Jay was also instrumental in the fight to make sure that nobody in America has to go broke because they get sick.”

Still, an impassioned and self-deprecating Rockefeller repeatedly asserted that he’s not going to slow down and rest on his laurels during the final two years of his tenure, and that he intends to push through more critical legislation. The senator’s office issued an official series of photos and accomplishments to mark his milestones.

The high-profile retirement will be a blow to West Virginia’s clout in the Senate, and it also presents the GOP with a golden opportunity to pick up a seat in the upper chamber.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced soon after being re-elected in November that she plans to run for the Senate in 2014. She is held in high esteem by establishment Republicans inside the Beltway, but there’s been a reticence to embrace her openly for fear of a far right-wing primary challenge.

Democrats say there are plenty of potential candidates waiting in the wings, but the two most frequently mentioned names are Carte Goodwin, who briefly replaced the late Sen. Robert Byrd before Democrat Joe Manchin was elected to the seat, and Earl Ray Tomblin, West Virginia’s governor.

Rockefeller’s impending departure from the Senate will further reduce the rapidly shrinking level of seniority in the chamber.

Longtime Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Tim Johnson of South Dakota are up for re-election next year. None of the three has said he plans to run again, and more retirement announcements may be coming. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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