If there were ever a poster child for progress on LGBT rights in Washington, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia would be it.
Until Wednesday, Sen. Manchin had been the lone Democratic hold out on a bill that would ban workplace discrimination against gay and transgender Americans. But shortly after New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters tweeted that the senator had signaled support the bill, Manchin told the Times, “There’s no way that I could ever not support something that basically bans discrimination. There’s no way. It’s just a fundamental right.”
But it’s not the first time Sen. Manchin has been an outlier in his party. He also holds the dubious distinction of being the sole Senate Democrat to vote against advancing “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal in 2010. Two key votes were taken in the Senate chamber on the gay ban during that lame duck session. One on December 9 as part of the Defense spending bill, which Manchin voted against; followed by the successful second vote on December 18, which has proven to be a watershed moment for LGBT equality.
Yet Manchin still missed his opportunity to land on the right side of history. He skipped the second vote entirely and his spokesperson later told the Charleston Gazette he had a “family obligation” he couldn’t miss. He and his wife had reportedly planned “a holiday gathering over a year ago” with all their children and grandchildren.
But earlier this year, at an April panel hosted by The Atlantic, Manchin indicated a change of heart.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked Manchin, “If [the bill] were up now, how would you vote?”
“It was the wrong vote,” Manchin admitted, explaining that he was “brand new” to the Senate at the time.
“My first armed services meeting, I had all the Joint Chiefs of staff — can you imagine? A kid from Farmington, West Virginia…I got more stars up there than I’ve seen in the sky,” he quipped. “They went down the line and you could tell, these commanders in chief were not in total support thinking they could do it as quickly during a time of war.”
Manchin specifically mentioned Marine Gen. James Amos, who had noted that 50 percent of his force was on the front lines and said it would be a major policy shift to make in the midst of a war.
At the time, Manchin reflected, he would have “voted on the side of caution” with General Amos. “Today,” he concluded, “I would have voted the other way because General Amos would have been wrong.”
Manchin’s delivery had a certain down-home charm that made the explanation somewhat more palatable. But he had clearly had time to ruminate on the issue and reach a different conclusion, much the way his predecessor, Sen. Robert Byrd, had done on civil rights. Byrd, who was once a Ku Klux Klan member, eventually repented and became a fervent supporter of dedicating a national holiday to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the country’s marked progress on LGBT equality since 2010 likely figured into Manchin’s newfound show of support for the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA). But it was also the product of some coordinated advocacy by Fairness West Virginia and a new ENDA coalition, Americans for Workplace Opportunity.
Members of Fairness WV met with Manchin and his staff about ENDA on several occasions. In a face-to-face meeting on September 12, the senator told executive director Casey Willits, “I didn't grow up in a house where discrimination of any type was tolerated."
Willits said Americans for Workplace Opportunity had committed three organizers in the last couple months to the ground game in West Virginia. “They showed up at exactly the right time to keep the pressure on Sen. Manchin,” Willits added.
Thursday, the two groups plan to deliver thousands of post cards to Manchin’s Charleston offices urging him to support the legislation. It will now be more of a “thank you” than a nudge.
Though the Republican-held House remains a hurdle, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he plans to vote on the measure before Thanksgiving. It’s a vote that few advocates thought was possible at the outset of 2013 — another sign that conventional wisdom on gay rights in Washington no longer holds the currency it once did.