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Veteran politician A. James Manchin dies

by Vicki Smith

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

FARMINGTON -- Delegate A. James Manchin, a self-proclaimed defender of West Virginia's virtue and showman who resurrected his political career following his 1989 impeachment as state treasurer, died Monday of an apparent heart attack. He was 76.

Gov. Bob Wise ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of the Marion County Democrat who started his political career in 1948 when he was elected to the House of Delegates for a single two-year term.

He returned to the House in 1998, nearly a decade after he resigned as state treasurer to avoid an impeachment trial in the state Senate over $279 million in investment losses from the state Consolidated Investment Fund. By resigning in July 1989, Manchin preserved his $2,000-a-month state pension.

Born April 7, 1927, the Farmington native was one of five children and liked to boast of his birth in a United Mine Workers' barracks -- "one step below a log cabin."

Manchin, known for his fedora and turn of a phrase, took on publishing firms, television networks and other states' governments in his lifelong defense of West Virginia.

"Every breath he had in him, every drop of blood in him was committed to helping others," his nephew, Secretary of State Joe Manchin said Monday. "No matter where he might be, you say one thing derogatory about our state, he'd be on it. He'd be after them."

During the 1980s, Manchin waged verbal warfare with University of Virginia officials over what he called West Virginia's "shabby" treatment at the hands of the school's pep band.

He also waged a 10-day feud with Kentucky over the Bluegrass State's slogan, declaring that "Oh! Kentucky just a little bit of heaven" was stealing West Virginia's moniker "Almost Heaven." The campaign ended with the Kentucky commissioner of tourism presenting Manchin with a plastic olive branch.

Manchin also challenged USA Weekend Magazine for producing a map that left out West Virginia.

"He certainly was one of West Virginia's best-known citizens; everyone has at least one A. James Manchin story they tell time after time," Wise said.

During his life, Manchin was an educator, administrator and politician. He helped organize President John F. Kennedy's 1960 West Virginia presidential campaign.

A year later, he was appointed state director of the federal Farmers Home Administration. Before he left the position in 1972, he claimed to have provided drinking water to 500,000 West Virginians.

Manchin's rise as a statewide figure began in 1973 when then-Gov. Arch Moore appointed him as director of REAP, a three-year, federally funded cleanup program formally known as the Rehabilitation Environmental Action Program. Manchin appeared on posters everywhere declaring, "Let us purge our proud peaks of these jumbled jungles of junkery."

"He made that a nationally recognized program just by the effort and energy he put into it," Moore told the Charleston Daily Mail on Monday. "I don't know anybody that can make a romance out of a junked car, but he did. You really just had to know him."

From REAP, Manchin waged a success campaign for secretary of state in 1976, a post he would keep until 1984 when he was elected state treasurer.

Manchin won re-election as treasurer in 1988, but resigned during the first year of his second term after the House of Delegates voted 65-34 to impeach him for the investment losses. He was never charged in the scandal but his assistant, Arnold Margolin, went to federal prison.

The state has since recovered $55 million from lawsuits against nine New York brokerage firms involved in the losses.

After his impeachment and resignation, Manchin taught civics classes to students in Greenbrier, Webster, Wetzel and Wood counties.

Manchin returned to politics in 1998 with his election to the House. He was re-elected in 2000.

He said he picked 1998 for his comeback because it marked the 50th anniversary of his first election to the House.

"I enjoy people and I always have. I enjoy being where the power is, to do something," he said following his 1998 victory.

U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd served with Manchin in the House during the 1940s.

"His smile, his laughter, and, most importantly, his devotion to the greater good will be missed," said Byrd, D-W.Va.

Manchin had a flare for the dramatic, and newspaper editorial writers sometimes characterized him as a buffoon, but his showmanship underscored a sly intelligence, said House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming.

"Everybody stood up and took notice when he talked," Staton said. "He was a real key behind-the-scenes member, someone who spoke up in caucus. He was also very considerate of other people."

At a pool hall in his hometown Monday, Dave McVaney said Manchin's booming voice and ability to get results from government set him apart.

"You always knew when he was in town," said McVaney, who would tend bar while Manchin played pinball. "He's so loud. You could hear him two blocks away.

"If you had a problem with anything in Charleston, you talked to A. James," he added. "Within a week, you'd be talking to a real person instead of a machine. He cut through the red tape."

Survivors include his wife, Stella Manchin; two daughters, Patty Manchin and Roseanne Manchin; son Mark, a former state senator and currently superintendent of McDowell County schools; and seven grandchildren.

Services are planned in Farmington. No details were immediately available.