One month before Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) met with national civil rights groups to discuss his opposition to congressional Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, he met with leaders of the West Virginia NAACP who were hoping to persuade him to back it.
The state activists wanted to understand Manchin’s then-unstated position on the bill. The senator told meeting attendees that he was opposed to certain provisions of the bill, but didn’t name any. And while he didn’t take a position on the bill at the time, it came across as though he opposed it.
Manchin joined the May 6 meeting by phone for only 15 minutes before handing it off to a staff member.
“We were very unsatisfied with his response and how short of a meeting he had with us,” said Owens Brown, president of the West Virginia NAACP.
Brown and other Black leaders in the state are deeply frustrated with Manchin and are planning to step up their activism to pressure him to stop opposing key parts of his party’s agenda in Congress. Although just 3.6% of West Virginia residents are Black, they argue that their support was key to his narrow victory in his last election ― and he cannot take them for granted going forward.
“If we all sat on our hands and stayed home, we would have an impact,” said Jennifer Wells, senior organizer at Community Change Action.
In his meeting with the state NAACP, Manchin did say that he supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a more limited bill that would reinstate the preclearance formula for the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Brown sent a follow-up letter to Manchin thanking him for his support for the John Lewis voting act but explained that the law, unless applied retroactively, would not fix the many voter suppression policies adopted by Republican state legislatures now. The For the People Act, however, would override many of those suppressive provisions.
“Respectfully, we ask that you support H.R. 1/S. 1 - For the People Act and request your written response to this request,” the May 18 letter stated. ”We look forward to meeting with you to further discuss this legislation.”
Manchin’s staff acknowledged receipt of the letter, according to Brown, but the West Virginia NAACP didn’t hear back from the senator about his position on the bill or about a follow-up meeting. Brown instead learned that Manchin opposed the For the People Act from the opinion piece the senator published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on June 6.
The opinion piece stated that Manchin opposed the bill solely because no Republican will support it. Just like in the meeting with Brown and other West Virginia NAACP leaders, Manchin did not lay out any objection to any provision of the bill.
Manchin’s opposition to the bill is now fomenting a reaction among Black leaders in the state that could imperil his already tenuous political future.
“He’s chosen his side, and his side is not the Black community,” Wells said.
Black activists in West Virginia point out that Manchin’s razor-thin margin of victory of less than 19,000 votes in the 2018 Senate election is owed to Black voters.
While West Virginia tilts further and further right, a Democratic senator like Manchin must still maintain support from the small Black community in the state to stay alive politically. His position on the For the People Act is threatening that support.
“African-Americans in West Virginia could be his Achilles’ heel,” Brown said.
Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
There have been other recent problems related to race within the West Virginia Democratic Party, which is led by Manchin’s cousin Belinda Biafore, that are further animating dissension against Manchin and his in-state allies.
Back in the 1970s, the Democratic Party adopted bylaws that mandated all state parties adopt affirmative action policies to increase diversity within their leadership and membership. West Virginia still has not done so. The state party created an Affirmative Action Committee made up of members of Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ and other communities. But at a meeting in June held on Zoom the all-white party leadership announced that they had written the affirmative action policy without input from that committee. The meeting erupted as Black members of the committee protested the exclusion of their input.
“African-Americans in West Virginia could be his Achilles' heel.”
“Hopefully we’ll mend those fences soon,” said Hollis Lewis, co-chair of the Affirmative Action Committee and co-chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party Black Caucus.
This intraparty conflict is feeding into the growing disapproval of Manchin among West Virginia’s Black leaders. In both cases, Black leaders feel that Manchin and his in-state allies are just assuming they’ll always be on their side.
“There seems to be an insensitivity on [Manchin’s] part on this because he doesn’t have to worry about African-Americans in West Virginia because of the small number of us,” Brown said. “He can overlook us, or think he doesn’t have to pay attention to us, because of our numbers.”
There is still hope that Manchin will continue to listen to the Black leaders in the state as they rally support in West Virginia for the For the People Act within the Black community and across the state as part of a broad coalition backing the bill.
“This is a legacy-defining moment,” Lewis said. “This is a time where we’re kinda looking at you to do the right thing.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to hold a floor vote on the For the People Act during the week of June 21. The next two weeks will reveal whether Manchin’s home state voters can get through to him.
“I believe that he is enjoying the limelight so much that he has not been listening to his own constituency,” said Pastor David Fryson, who is involved in the Affirmative Action Committee.
“We get told no, but Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, they get to be listened to,” Wells said. “Folks are mobilizing now. There’s another West Virginia and we’re fighting for change.”