Back in the day, if you grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, when you turned 18 it was a rite of passage for your friends to skirt you across state lines to West Virginia, where the drinking age was 18. My 18th birthday was filled with cheap beer in dive bars and putting coins in slots at peep shows to watch women dance and strip. It was as memorable as it was mortifying.
Later, when I worked on the Hill, our district abutted West Virginia, and for a long time, that state’s politics was dominated by its powerful senator, Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years, which combined with his six years in the House, makes him the second-longest-serving member of Congress in history.
Byrd was notorious for bringing beaucoup bucks to West Virginia when he chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and by way of his two stints as Senate majority leader and four turns as the president pro tempore of the Senate, a position traditionally held by the longest-serving senator in the body’s majority party. During some tough economic times for the state, Byrd kept the money running through West Virginia, until his death while still in office, in June of 2010, at the age of 92.
Toward the end of his career, Byrd acheived a 100 percent record for votes on legislation supported by the NAACP and apologized for his past racism, which included being a Ku Klux Klan organizer before he began his career in Congress and, when in the Senate, voting against confirming the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall (he notably asked FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to secretly investigate Marshall for supposedly being a communist). But most memorable was Byrd’s famous filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Byrd also supported the atrocious Defense of Marriage Act, saying, “The drive for same-sex marriage is, in effect, an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it should be legal. … Let us defend the oldest institution, the institution of marriage between male and female as set forth in the Holy Bible.”
Byrd was feared by many, not only because he was so powerful, but because he could be so cruel.
West Virginia now has another powerful senator, and not by tenure or position, but merely because of the tenuous 50-50 split in the Senate that means a conservative Democrat like Joe Manchin holds undue influence. For Manchin, it’s the opposite of Byrd in one way. No one fears Manchin, because Manchin fears doing the right thing.
Emulating his predecessor, Manchin wrote in a Sunday op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, his hometown West Virginia paper, that he would not support House Resolution 1: For the People Act, a sweeping and desperately needed voting rights bill passed by the House earlier this year. Manchin also said he would not get rid of the filibuster to help pass HR 1 or any other legislation, including the Equality Act, which he opposes.
This, as his own state legislature in April overwhelmingly passed a law that severely restricts voting options for the state’s residents. It is one of 15 states to pass laws that effectively limit or restrict access to voting for Black people and other people of color.
Last week, a group of over 100 scholars and members of academia signed a statement urging the passage of federal voting protections, warning that U.S. democracy is “now at risk” with the wave of GOP-led initiatives, like West Virginia’s, being implemented across the country.
In addition, Manchin’s state’s governor recently signed into law an anti-transgender bill that would ban transgender girls and women from participating in sports at the elementary, secondary, or post-secondary level consistent with their gender identity. West Virginia is one of at least 30 states that has considered or passed such discriminatory and overtly political legislation.
In response, Andrew Schneider, the executive director of Fairness West Virginia, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group, said that “transgender children are worthy of love and support. They deserve the chance to learn and grow in the classroom and on the field.”
Is Manchin taking a page from the early racist and homophobic days of Sen. Robert Byrd?
How else can you explain his utter blindness to what is happening in our country? I think it’s pretty simple. To paraphrase Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, he is most likely afraid for his own security, and the state’s predominantly white, Trump-loving constituency. And his cowardice makes him democracy’s and equality’s number one enemy.
For sure, Manchin doesn’t read The Advocate, and if he did, he would see that discrimination and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community are still very much prevalent. We are on the cusp of finally getting an Equality Act, and if it does not pass, we can put the blame on Manchin’s fear of supporting our community at the risk of angering that bigoted Trump base. And that makes his actions very frightening.
According to a new LinkedIn survey, 26 percent of LGBTQ+ people fear being open about their identities at work because they feel that coworkers would treat them differently. And while the Supreme Court ruled last year that someone can’t be fired because of their sexuality or gender identity, it doesn’t cover small businesses, and it doesn’t help all those who still feel threatened to be themselves at work. If the Equality Act fails, it will only increase the number of feel who feel scared to be out at work.
We should also be afraid of Manchin’s refusal to help enact any form of a voting rights act. Manchin says that he prefers the John Lewis bill, which at this writing has only one Republican Senate supporter, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. It’s easy for Manchin to go to plan B, i.e. the Lewis bill, when he knows that will fail too. In essence, he’s risking democracy, just like the experts are warning, and he’s trampling on the rights of minority voters.
Manchin met today with the heads of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and several other Black civil rights organizations and leaders, who no doubt pleaded with him to do the right thing. Manchin said the meeting was “constructive.” But Manchin’s refusal to bend to help them is simply destructive.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last night, former President Barack Obama said, “All of us as citizens have to recognize that the path towards an undemocratic America is not gonna happen in just one bang.” It happens, he said, “in a series of steps.”
Manchin’s move is one of those series of steps. For all intents and purposes because he will not support the For the People Act and end the filibuster rule to allow for debate and passage of the bill, more Republican legislatures across the country will run amok by passing sweeping voter discrimination bills. There will be a severe reckoning.
In West Virginia parlance, I reckon that Manchin just doesn’t have the balls to do the right thing for the country, for Black and brown people, and for the LGBTQ+ community. Some are calling him the new Mitch McConnell, but he’s worse. He’s the enemy from within. By not adding his voice of support to two crucial pieces of legislation sitting in the Senate, this Democrat is now the biggest threat we have to sustaining democracy and equality.
Martin Luther King Jr. was prophetic when he said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.