One month before Sen. Joe Manchin
(D-W.Va.) met with national civil rights
organizations 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 support it.
The state activists were interested in understanding Manchin's then-unstated position on the bill. The senator told meeting attendees that he was opposed to certain provisions of the bill, but did not name any, and while he did not take a position on the bill at the time, it appeared that he did.
Manchin spoke with a staff member for only 15 minutes during the May 6 meeting by phone.
“We were very disappointed with his response and the short meeting he had with us,” said Owens Brown, president
of the West Virginia NAACP.
Brown and other Black
leaders in the state are angry with Manchin and plan to increase their activism to pressure him to stop opposing key parts of his party's agenda in Congress. Despite the fact that only 3.6% of West Virginia residents are Black, they argue that their support was critical to his narrow victory in his last election
, and he cannot take it for granted going forward.
“If we all sat on our hands and stayed at home, we could make a difference,” Jennifer Wells, senior organizer at Community Change Action, said.
Manchin did say during his meeting with the state NAACP that he supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a more limited bill that would restore the preclearance formula for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court
Brown followed up with Manchin, thanking him for his support for the John Lewis voting act but explaining that, unless retroactively applied, the law
would not address the many voter suppression
policies currently in place by Republican state legislatures; the For the People Act
, on the other hand, would repeal many of those suppressive provisions.
“Respectfully, we request 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, adding that “we look forward to meeting with you to further discuss this legislation.”
According to Brown, Manchin's staff acknowledged receipt of the letter, but the West Virginia NAACP did not hear back from the senator about his position on the bill or about a follow-up meeting. Instead, Brown learned that Manchin opposed the For the People Act from an opinion piece published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on June 6.
The opinion piece stated that Manchin opposed the bill solely because no Republican would support it, and that, as in the meeting with Brown and other West Virginia NAACP leaders, Manchin made no objections to any provision of the bill.
Manchin's opposition to the bill is now inciting a backlash among the state's Black leaders, threatening his already precarious political future.
“He’s chosen his side, and it’s not the Black community,” Wells said.
Black activists in West Virginia argue that Manchin's razor-thin margin of victory in the 2018 Senate
election is due to Black voters
While West Virginia's political landscape continues to shift to the right, a Democratic senator like Manchin must maintain support from the state's small Black community in order to remain politically viable, and his position on the For the People Act threatens that support.
Brown believes that “African-Americans in West Virginia could be his Achilles’ heel.”
A request for comment from Manchin's office went unanswered.
Other recent racial issues within the West Virginia Democratic Party
, led by Manchin's cousin Belinda Biafore, are igniting opposition to Manchin and his in-state allies.
Back in the 1970s, the Democratic Party adopted bylaws requiring all state parties to implement affirmative action policies to increase diversity
in their leadership and membership; West Virginia has yet to do so. The state party formed an Affirmative Action Committee comprised of members of the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ
, and other communities; however, at a meeting held on Zoom
in June, the all-white committee was elected.
In West Virginia, African-Americans may be his Achilles' heel.
President of the NAACP of West Virginia, Owens Brown
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to mend those fences soon,” said Hollis Lewis, co-chair of the Affirmative Action Committee and the West Virginia Democratic Party’s Black Caucus.
This intraparty conflict is contributing to Manchin's growing disapproval among West Virginia's Black leaders, who believe Manchin and his in-state allies are simply assuming they'll always be on their side.
“There appears 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, adding that “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 Black leaders in the state as they rally support for the For the People Act in West Virginia within the Black community and across the state as part of a broad coalition supporting the bill.
“This is a moment that will define your legacy,” Lewis said, “and we’re looking to you to do the right thing.”
The Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer
(D-NY), intends to hold a floor vote on the For the People Act during the week of June 21, and the next two weeks will reveal whether Manchin's home state voters can reach him.
“I believe he has been enjoying the limelight so much that he has not been listening to his own constituency,” said Pastor David Fryson, a member of the Affirmative Action Committee.
“We get told no, but Mitch McConnell
and the Republican Party
get to be heard,” Wells said, adding that “people are mobilizing now. There is another West Virginia, and we are fighting for change.”