CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jamie Rockefeller was 2 weeks old and he was sick. It was 1969, and he had something called pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the stomach that prevents food from being digested. He needed surgery.
"I will never forget Sharon's and my terror," Jamie's father, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., recalled in September. "We didn't know about an operation. He's 2 weeks old -- a 2-week-old baby -- but we could do the operation because we could afford to do that, so we did that. And now he's 6 foot 4 and weighs about 250 pounds."
Of course Rockefeller, scion of one of America's richest and most powerful families, could pay for the surgery. But that helpless fear -- that a parent feels for a sick child -- stuck with him, and he realized how much that fear is compounded if health care is unavailable or unaffordable.
"Your infant child is sick, she's got a cough, her fever is spiking. You're not sure what to do, and there's a feeling of helplessness that comes with that," Rockefeller said. "What many of us can never understand is what it's like to feel that sense of dread without the comfort of affordable health care."
Rockefeller, who with his wife, Sharon, has four children and six grandkids, has spent much of his career trying to alleviate that sense of dread -- to bring medical care to people who otherwise wouldn't have it.
In 1992, he got the Coal Act passed, forcing coal companies to pay the health-care costs of retired miners.
In 1997, he was one of two lead sponsors of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which today gives health coverage to 25,000 low-income West Virginia kids.
In 2009, he led the reauthorization of CHIP, helping to secure the program's funding through 2015.
In November of this year, a clinic to treat chronic lung disease, partially funded by Jay and Sharon Rockefeller, opened in Cabin Creek. Two similar clinics are to open in Boone and Fayette counties.
On Wednesday, more than 80,000 of West Virginia's poorest residents will get health insurance, many for the first time, because of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's decision to expand Medicaid in the state, an expansion that Rockefeller relentlessly advocated.
On Dec. 12, Rockefeller spoke to the Senate Subcommittee on Health Care, which he chairs, to push for the same consumer protections in Medicaid that are required of private insurers.
"Medicare and Medicaid, and the people who rely on these vital programs, are in many ways my life's work. They are the reason for my public service," Rockefeller, who will retire in one year, told the subcommittee. "I am here today to continue work I've done for nearly 50 years: protecting the most vulnerable among us all. It is something I take very, very seriously,"
From allowing sick kids to get to a doctor, to bringing an auto plant and 1,200 jobs to Putnam County, to stopping phone companies from billing for bogus charges, to bringing Internet access to West Virginia's most rural schools and libraries, Rockefeller's career has been spent looking out for the most vulnerable West Virginians.
Someone who was born with much has spent 50 years fighting for those with little.
For a lifetime of advocating for the health and economic interests of the most vulnerable, least-noticed West Virginians -- and for his half-century of conscientious public service -- the Sunday Gazette-Mail has chosen U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller as the 2013 West Virginian of the Year.
'These are the people I represent'
Hours after the lung disease clinic opened in Cabin Creek, Rockefeller was honored for his decades of public service -- starting as a VISTA volunteer in Kanawha County in 1964.
Vice President Joe Biden, Rockefeller's longtime Senate colleague, was the keynote speaker at the annual West Virginia Democratic Party event.
"It can be said of Jay Rockefeller what I said of Bob Byrd," Biden said. "West Virginia is written on his heart. He wears it on his sleeve. He takes such pride in this place. He takes such pride in all of you."
In the conference room of Rockefeller's Washington, D.C., office in the Hart Senate Office Building hangs a large black-and-white photograph, a portrait of a West Virginia coal miner. His face smudged with coal, the man stares intently at anybody who stops to look.
And that's most everybody who comes to meet with Rockefeller.
"We would have CEOs of big communications companies, these highfalutin CEOs," said Jessica Rosenworcel, who worked on Rockefeller's Commerce Committee before she was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 2012. "And he would make every one of them take a look into those eyes and tell them, 'These are the people I represent and I want you to look into their eyes. I want you to look at this picture and look at his eyes and understand what I come to work to do every day.'
"He'd take these people in their impeccable suits and make them stare at it, and then he'd sit down to meet with them."
Whether it's making CEOs stare at a coal miner or comparing the federal government shutdown to black lung (hugely damaging but also eminently preventable), people who have worked with Rockefeller, say he is consistently motivated to do what's best for West Virginians, and he's not shy about doing that.
"Jay Rockefeller first arrived in West Virginia as a young volunteer, eager to improve the lives of working families," President Obama said in a statement earlier this year. "Jay has built an impressive legacy, one that can be found in the children who have better schools, the miners who have safer working conditions, the seniors who have retired with greater dignity and the new industries he helped to bring to West Virginia."
In May of this year, the Putnam County Toyota plant, which makes engines and transmissions, produced its 10-millionth unit.
Rockefeller was on hand in Buffalo to celebrate a milestone more than 25 years in the making, which began when he first traveled to Japan to meet with Toyota officials in 1986.
He would fly to Japan a dozen times over the next 20 years, cajoling and convincing Toyota executives that Putnam County was the best place for their investment. Toyota broke ground on the plant in 1996 and has expanded four times since then.
The plant employed 300 people when it opened. It now employs nearly 1,200. The company has invested more than $1.2 billion in the plant, the biggest industrial investment in West Virginia in 50 years.
"We had no idea it was going to expand and expand," Rockefeller said in May. "This is one of the biggest diversifications that has ever happened here, because we didn't make cars before."
Bruce Andrews was a vice president at Ford Motor Co. before he left to become general counsel for the Commerce Committee.
Andrews said Rockefeller transformed the committee when he became chairman in 2009, focusing on protecting average consumers and, for the first time, establishing an investigative unit within the committee.
That unit led a 2010 investigation of "cramming" on phone bills -- third-party charges for things like ring tones and voice mail that show up unexplained on customers' bills.
Rockefeller's investigation found that phone companies and others were making billions of dollars in fees from "cramming."
Rockefeller subsequently introduced legislation to end "cramming," but before he did, AT&T and Verizon -- under news media scrutiny and facing lawsuits -- voluntarily agreed to end the practice in 2012.
"If he saw an injustice and he saw consumers getting ripped off, there was not a shy bone in his body about going after it," Andrews said. "He recognized that, by being elected by the people of West Virginia, he was given this power to help people and, particularly, people who don't have the ability to stand up to entrenched interests on their own . . . and frankly, I think there are some that are shy about using that power. He never hesitated."
Andrews left the Commerce Committee in 2011 and is now the chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, where he still hears from Rockefeller regularly.
"He is tireless and he is relentless," Andrews said. "He is not shy about calling when there is something that he wants to see happen for West Virginia."
Insuring West Virginia
For months now, two numbers associated with the Affordable Care Act have drawn all the attention: The millions of people who have had their coverage canceled because their insurance didn't meet the law's minimum standards; and the millions of people who have signed up for private insurance through a state-run exchange or the balky federal website.
In West Virginia, though, those two numbers do not tell the story of the new law.
About 8,800 West Virginians have had their plans canceled. About 2,300 have signed up for private insurance on the new exchange. Those numbers are dwarfed by another, less touted one: About 83,000 people, most of whom make less than $15,000 a year, have signed up for expanded Medicaid. Nearly 5 percent of West Virginia will have new, affordable health insurance beginning Wednesday because the state decided to expand Medicaid.