Gayle Manchin had some questions when a woman commented in a recent speech that those who speak with a twang or drawl face some assumptions about their intellect.
She said that “people would automatically not think you were smart,” recalled Manchin, who is married to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
“I didn’t realize that,” Manchin told the speaker. “She said, ‘Oh, yes.'”
“Well, I know I have always had — I call it ‘the twang’ — the West Virginia twang,” she said, turning it up for effect. So, “if you have a Harvard accent, they would automatically know more about what you’re talking about,” she said, neatly upending the woman’s assumptions.
Twang or no twang, no one questions what Gayle Manchin knows about Appalachia. For proof of that, look no further than President Joe Biden, who last year nominated her to lead a federal economic development agency for the region.
Manchin’s position required Senate approval, but that process never seemed daunting to her. “I guess I had that edge …I know a lot of the senators on not just even a personal basis, but…on a political basis, in terms of what’s important.”
If confirmed, Manchin would hit new professional heights as a principle in federal public service, flanked with staff and armed with a budget.
“I knew that President Biden really understood rural America,” Manchin said, describing how she felt “thunderstruck” at the opportunity. “And I just don’t believe we’ve had a president, in my lifetime, that I thought really, really understood rural America…”
Her Senate confirmation vote was unanimous, and with that, she became the second Manchin working for the federal government in Washington, with her own budget and staff. Gayle and Joe Manchin aren’t the first couple to take on Washington together: Elaine Chao has served as both transportation and labor secretary while her husband, Mitch McConnell has served in the Senate — he’s currently the GOP minority leader.
Joe Manchin has taken an outsized role in the Senate during the Biden administration, as the crucial swing vote in the 50-50 Senate. He helped shape theand for the more ambitious spending legislation championed by progressives and the president when he said it would not have his vote.
Local West Virginia talk show host Hoppy Kervechal wrote last year, “So, this [nomination] will be good for Gayle Manchin and West Virginia. But not so much for her husband, Joe Manchin.”
Whether or not it was fair, Kercheval noted, there would be an “inevitable” political perception that Manchin’s nomination stemmed from a kind of Washington coziness, given Joe Manchin’s prominence, especially because of the power he wields in Congress.
Gayle Manchin said she’s careful to separate her work from her husband’s. “I think we are a good team,” Manchin said. “And I think we complement one another. But he certainly has been in charge of his career and the role he plays in what he does, and I’ve been in charge of my career and my role, what I play.”
And what does she think about all the attention the moderate senator has received this year?
“Well, here’s what I would say,” Manchin said with a laugh. “This is about me.”
A year into her job, Manchin said she has not yet met with Mr. Biden to discuss Appalachia, but she does try other avenues to reach him. At a recent luncheon for Senate spouses, Manchin said she approached first lady Jill Biden. “And I always say, ‘Please thank your husband for me.”
Sitting with Manchin in the commission’s nondescript glass Washington office building — where she sometimes commutes on foot from her home in D.C. — there’s a sense that this role, as head of the 57-year-old Appalachian Regional Commission aimed at economic development across the 13 states in Appalachia, came at an opportune time.
After decades of public service as a schoolteacher, then as West Virginia’s first lady, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice appointed her to lead the state education and arts department in 2017. During her tenure, Gayle Manchin proved that like her husband, she’s not one to shy away from a political fight.
About a year after she joined the West Virginia government, she confronted Justice after the Republican-led state legislature passed a bill she thought threatened her department.
When Justice didn’t respond, Manchin released a statement publicly pressuring Justice to veto the bill. Instead of calling her back, the governor fired her, writing, “She was very critical, made it political, and put me in a very, very bad position.”
Manchin was undeterred. “I don’t think it’s just because I’m Joe Manchin’s wife. I believe they think they need to get Democrats out of positions of influence. I think the Republicans of this state believe everybody in a position like this should be a Republican,” she told Kervechal afterward. In fact, Justice, who was a Democrat until 2016, changed his party affiliation to Republican in 2017.
Now, four years later in her new role in the federal government, Manchin, the commission’s federal co-chair, works closely with Appalachia’s governors — including Justice – who now could not be more effusive in his praise of the woman he fired.
“Well, first and foremost, we’ve got an incredible co-chair right now, do we not?” Justice said at the beginning of a roundtable Gayle Manchin hosted in May with two other governors. “I can never really thank you enough. And really, at the end of the day, you got real passion, and absolutely that’s what drives everything,” Justice said to a smiling Manchin. “So, you got the ball and we are going to follow straight behind. So, tell us the play to run, and we are gonna run it.”
Asked how the two smoothed over their relationship, Manchin laughed. “You can’t have lived around the world of politics as long as I have … you can’t hold grudges. You move on,” she said. “And something that may seem like a bad thing that happened, I mean, had he not fired me, maybe I would have never had the opportunity to do this? So, maybe he did me a favor.”
If it’s not already clear, Manchin relishes politics. “I’m probably one of the few people in the world that doesn’t think of ‘politics’ as a dirty word. I’m offended when somebody campaigns and says, “I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman” or you know, whatever they’re claiming they are,” Manchin said. “To me, you’re saying you’re a politician, you’re saying that you are interested in trying to affect the policy of where you live. ”
In her role, she has met so far with all of Appalachia’s 13 governors except New York’s Kathy Hochul, and while in Washington, she can often be found meeting with Biden Cabinet secretaries.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been timid about stepping up to the plate,” she said about her meetings with these political leaders, especially when she can share perspective from the region.
In December, while Democrats on Capitol Hill were debating Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” social spending package (the bill that her her husband had a role in killing), Gayle Manchin was next door to the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building meeting with administration officials about how to revitalize coal and power plant communities.
With Manchin seated at the center of the room next to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and other top White House officials, the group spoke about the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure law (supported by her husband) — which increased the Appalachian Commission’s budget by $1 billion — and how the law would assist broadband connection in the region.
She helped notch a huge victory a few months ago for Appalachia, one that had its roots in that December meeting. One businessman in attendance mentioned that he was “exploring” the idea of opening a battery manufacturing company in Appalachia.
“Mrs. Manchin had a look of disbelief on her face,” the businessman, Sanjiv Malhotra, recalled. When he mentioned it was a Silicon Valley company, “that look of [Manchin’s] disbelief turned to utter disbelief,” he said. She did seem a little dubious.
“And I don’t blame her. In California, and especially in Silicon Valley, we have quite a few entrepreneurs who have this tendency to be flaky,” Malhotra recalled. That look, he conceded, was justified.
But his company followed through and in March announced its intention to build a 100% cobalt-free battery plant in Charleston, W.Va. Manchin stood alongside Biden administration officials — and her husband off to the side — to welcome the public-private partnership venture.
Manchin’s job is not only to meet with major business development executives and entrepreneurs but to travel the region and inspect the dozens of projects the commission is funding, and she has already made it to 11 of Appalachia’s 13 states.
After trips with other officials to her town, Mayor Liz Ordiales from Hiawassee, Ga., said she was nervous about meeting with Manchin. “You are always skeptical a little bit, you know she is a big player,” Ordiales said.
But after Manchin changed from her business suit into jeans for a tour, asked detailed questions about the plans to use the $600,000 grant to start a business incubator and put in an order for pizza and red wine at dinner, Ordiales’ group was at ease.
Ordiales said she was happy to be able to show Manchin how her commission is helping small towns, praising the commission for having “taken the city from kindergarten to a master’s degree.”