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Joe Manchin reflects on his move from old stage to new

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- President Barack Obama had a simple message when he called Gov. Joe Manchin to congratulate him on winning the U.S. Senate race.

"He said, 'Don't bring the dang gun,'" Manchin said.

The president was referring to the famous campaign ad in which Manchin shoots the cap and trade bill, a key part of the Obama administration's legislative agenda last year.

In an interview Wednesday at the Governor's Mansion, Manchin, who is expected to be sworn in as senator on Monday, reflected on his six years in office and discussed what happens next for the state, as well as what he plans to do in the Senate.

When he goes to Washington -- apparently without the rifle -- Manchin will look for compromise and what he calls common sense.

It's a simple philosophy -- one that shuns promises and ideology -- that has carried Manchin through his tenure and allows him to leave office as one of the most popular governors in the country.

He said Democrats won't be able to count on his vote, but insisted he has no plans to switch parties.

"If you think that you're going to take me in the caucus and you're going to say, 'OK, guess what, this is the Democratic caucus and we're all going to walk out of here kumbaya?"<#148> Manchin said. "Well, I'm sorry. It's going to be what's good for America and what's good for my state."

At the same time, he is not enthusiastic about throwing babies out with the bath water on things like health care reform, an unpopular law that Republicans hope to repeal completely.

"It doesn't make sense to make a statement to repeal the whole thing when there's some things in there you agree with," Manchin said.

And when it comes to voting on whether or not to extend the so-called Bush tax cuts, which expire at the end of the year, Manchin hopes to preserve the cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans -- those making more than $250,000 a year but less than $1 million. The issue will be on the table during an upcoming lame duck session of Congress.

He said there are only about 6,900 West Virginians who fall in that category, but that 40 percent of them, or 2,600 people, are small business owners.

There's debate about only allowing the tax cuts to be extended for a few years. Manchin said that kind of thinking doesn't make sense to him because whether the taxes are changed or not should be tied to economic conditions, not an arbitrary agreement.

For instance, when he began reducing the state food tax, Manchin said he only allowed it to go down if other revenue could pick up the slack. When the economy flattened out in 2007, he had to stop making cuts to the food tax.

"They don't even think that way," Manchin said of his future colleagues in Washington.

On a practical level, Manchin said he plans to work together with the four other members of the state congressional delegation. In the past, when Robert Byrd was the senior senator, the rapport in the group wasn't the best.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for instance, was invited to only two delegation meetings in her 10 years in office. The first was following the 2006 Sago Mine disaster. The second was meeting called a few weeks ago by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Manchin also plans to position his congressional field offices in different places from Rockefeller's so that more people can access constituent services, although both will likely have offices in Charleston and the Eastern Panhandle.

It's simple things like that which have given the Manchin administration a certain understated elegance.

When he took office, for instance, he wanted the state to operate like a business and for employees to treat the public like customers, to keep business hours and to dress well.

Now, as he leaves, Manchin wants the media to use hard data to hold accountable the people who succeed him in the Governor's Mansion.

At a Friday farewell press conference, he plans to present a series of metrics that show where the state was when he took office and where it is now.

Manchin is widely credited for getting the state budget under control and wrestling with the massive worker's comp and teacher retirement debts, all while reducing taxes. Since 2005, for instance, the state budget has shrunk as compared to the state's gross domestic product.

"We're still in very good shape," Manchin said.

He said the public should keep an eye on revenue coming in, especially coal severance taxes, and on the ratio of public employees to private sector workers.

He said a crucial decision he made was introducing a five-year budget forecast. That innovation is one he expects Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, to keep doing when Tomblin becomes acting governor.

"He bought right into it," Manchin said.

But not all the figures Manchin leaves behind are pretty -- unemployment is 8.6 percent, and there are still billions of dollars in future liabilities.

Manchin also said officials will face "dicey" budget years in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The state education system also lags and Manchin's attempt to reform it was drowned out earlier this summer in the scramble to fill Byrd's unexpired Senate term.

Manchin has pushed for an audit of the state education system. The contract has not yet been awarded and what happens with it may be an early test of the Tomblin administration.

Manchin said in the education system, "Nothing makes sense to me."

For instance, he asked, Why are teachers always fired -- or, in government parlance, subject to "reduction in force" -- but not administrators?

"You ever hear them RIF-ing the front office?" Manchin said.

He added, exasperated, "But, by God, we're going to RIF teachers."

Manchin also reflected on the rhetoric from the campaign trail, including the famous advertisement where he shot the cap and trade bill.

Before it aired, Manchin said someone from his campaign team called a White House political staffer out of courtesy and respect.

He said the ad, which some credit with helping Manchin climb back from behind in the polls, included "everything in it," like an endorsement from the NRA and a dramatic illustration of his independence from Obama.

At the time, Republican industrialist John Raese was attacking Manchin for backing a version of cap and trade. Manchin said that was a lie about a law that encourages the use of alternative and renewable energy, including "clean coal" and natural gas.

"We had to be that bold to show that's not who we are," Manchin said of the ad, titled "Dead Aim."

He maintains that the cap and trade bill should be dead and his ad showed him "putting it out of its misery."

Manchin and first lady Gayle kept working last week following the election, but they used their nights to begin packing and moving. Manchin said they plan to keep their homes in West Virginia, which include one near the airport in Charleston, another back in his native Fairmont that his son and family live in, and a place at Canaan Valley.

Manchin said he'd heard the rumors that his daughter Heather had already bought a house in D.C. for him -- rumors that began long before Election Day -- but said they weren't true.

Instead, he plans to move into a hotel in Washington for the Senate session that begins Monday. The Senate will then go back on recess for Thanksgiving. He hopes to find a place in the meantime.

"Gayle's been looking at that," Manchin said. "Where she tells me to go, I'll go."

If things don't work out so quickly, he said he'd been offered a guest room in the home of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Warner used to be his state's governor, too.

Manchin, who takes credit for putting West Virginia's "fiscal house in order," also put his own house in order by renovating the Governor's Mansion.

"They were going to raze the house, they were just going to tear it down," he said. "You would have thought everything would have been done to code to the nth degree, right? It was done completely opposite. Nothing was to code."

So, despite some raised eyebrows, Manchin put the mansion through a costly renovation using private dollars. It was, he said, necessary to help him showcase the state.

In the end, it provides a literal example of his administration's ability to put out fires.

"The fan downstairs in the basement, someone left it on. It clogged, 'Boom!'" Manchin said. "There was a helluva fire and, I mean, at about one o'clock in the morning we're running around trying to the locate the fire -- they got it out."

Contact writer Ry Rivard at or 304-348-1796.



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