After 16 years in office, Jay Rockefeller is poised to step forward as one of the Senate's major power brokers
by Nora Edinger
A descendent of powerful business and powerful philanthropy, it was unlikely that John D. Rockefeller IV would become heir apparent to West Virginia's champion in chief.
Yet he has.
The state's junior U.S. Senator for 16 years, Rockefeller has quietly been building the same kind of national clout his Democratic ally Robert C. Byrd has so successfully wielded since 1958.
"Sen. Byrd is well known because he's been in Washington so long," said Kevin Leyden, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.
"He's moved up the ranks, and he's become an important power broker and is on the important committees."
The path to power
While media attention can bring new senators such as Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrity status, Leyden said committee assignments are still the real measure of a senator's clout.
Byrd has topped the queue on several occasions, with appointments such as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Rockefeller, who won the slot of retiring Sen. Jennings Randolph in 1984, has also been climbing the rungs.
"Sen. Rockefeller works hard for the families of West Virginia," Byrd said. "His committee assignments -- on Finance, Veterans' Affairs, and Commerce, Science and Transportation -- put him in a good position to address the needs of the state's residents."
Leyden suspects West Virginians may be unaware of how well known Rockefeller has become outside the state on issues such as health care because of his relatively quiet personality.
"Just because you're a well-known politician nationally doesn't mean you're a great legislator," Leyden said of media darlings, a classification Rockefeller has not pursued.
"I think he's sort of that kind of person," he said of senators who garner the respect of their peers instead.
Ironically, both Byrd and Leyden said the Rockefeller family's history of wealth may have been as much an obstacle as an asset in seeking that political respectability.
"The Rockefeller name still turns heads," Leyden said. "To some people, that may be a negative."
Byrd said Rockefeller -- who came to Emmons, West Virginia at the age of 27 as a VISTA volunteer -- has overcome any stigma, however, with his consistent choice of key issues during service as a state representative, secretary of state, governor and, now, senator.
"Through his work to improve the quality of life in West Virginia, Sen. Rockefeller has ... won over many of those who were, at first, skeptical at the idea of a Rockefeller moving into Mountaineer Country."
Indeed, veterans' benefits, health care and technology access have been recurring themes in the senator's efforts.
In recent years, he has worked to protect the health benefits of retired coal miners and co-sponsored an amendment that is helping connect libraries and schools nationally to the Internet.
Beyond the Senate floor, Rockefeller -- who majored in far-Eastern languages and history at Harvard -- is known for linking West Virginia with Pacific Rim nations. Most notably, he has helped small businesses export to Asia and helped bring Toyota Motors and NGK Sparkplugs to the state.
A future as senior?
The latter accomplishments may bode well for Rockefeller's future.
Leyden suspects he could bring home the political bacon, although it could be through different avenues than Byrd, who is known for such large national projects as the Federal Bureau of Investigations center in Clarksburg and federal funding for extensive Corridor H development. Leyden sees Rockefeller as further left, especially on national issues, than Byrd, whom he called a moderate liberal.
"I think that Rockefeller could eventually pick up ... from where Byrd left off," Leyden said of the possible scenario if Rockefeller, 63, outlasts Byrd, 82, in the Senate.
"Any senator would (want) to do the same thing."
Rockefeller has already been a junior senator for the second-longest stretch in modern Senate history. The record holder is Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., a 78-year-old who has served 34 years as junior senator to 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.
"He is a historic figure in the U.S. Senate, and, indeed, every senator, both Republican and Democrat, looks to Robert C. Byrd for guidance and leadership," Rockefeller said of the long association.
Byrd, however, said he thinks of Rockefeller as a colleague, in a relationship similar to the one he had with Randolph, with whom he served 26 years.
"I have watched Jay emerge as a strong leader," Byrd said. "I have been very fortunate in having had two good colleagues in my years in the Senate."
Regardless of his political future, Rockefeller said he doesn't plan any major shift in his philosophical goals.
"My priorities will remain the same as a senator from West Virginia: issues that I believe make a difference in the lives of West Virginia families, like improving health care for seniors and children, protecting steelworkers and coal miners, creating new jobs and providing access to technology in our schools and libraries," he said.
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at email@example.com.