CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The decision by 75-year-old Jay Rockefeller to restire from the U.S. Senate when his fifth six-year term ends in early 2015 is a sad loss for West Virginia. His departure after a half-century of outstanding public service will leave a void difficult to fill.
Rockefeller has been a towering figure in the Mountain State -- legislator, secretary of state, college president, governor and longtime U.S. senator -- a tireless crusader to improve life for state residents.
He symbolizes the best of Democratic Party ideals, working to benefit the middle class and average families. He helped bring thousands of good-paying jobs to West Virginia, partly by using his connections to Japan, where he once was a student.
He has spent much of his Senate career striving to improve America's health system, and advocated government-run medical insurance to complement commercial coverage. He helped create CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and the Coal Act, which guaranteed care for retired miners. He has sponsored dozens of other people-helping plans.
"West Virginia has become my life and my cause," Rockefeller said Friday. "I never, ever doubt what it is I'm trying to do. West Virginia provides that to me in the form of fantastically hard-working, tough, warm-hearted people .... I will spend the next couple of years thinking of what I can do to continue to fight for the causes I believe in. I will not be leaving West Virginia. West Virginia will always be my home."
Rockefeller, great-grandson of the historic oil billionaire, first came to this state in 1964 as a young VISTA volunteer helping low-income families at a tiny Kanawha County town. Upon announcing his Senate retirement, he told the Politico news agency his VISTA service changed his life.
"I was looking for a cause," he said. "I was looking for a mission. I was looking for something that would possess me, which would make me really proud, something that was very hard every day and was uphill, and it wasn't going to be on Wall Street."
Rockefeller said his worst regret as a senator was voting for President Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, a blunder based on untrue claims that Iraq possessed horror weapons and would give them to terrorists to use against Americans.
Politico wrote that the Senate retirement will leave a vacuum "in deep red West Virginia" and reported: "Rockefeller acknowledged that Democrats will have a hard time holding onto his West Virginia Senate seat, but he insisted that he wasn't leaving because of fear of any GOP challenger."
Rockefeller performed a valuable service by announcing his retirement early, so leaders in both political parties will have time to unite behind contenders to be his successor. We hope West Virginia Democrats produce strong figures worthy of that role.