A month before Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) met with national civil rights groups to discuss his opposition to the Congress Democrats Voting Rights Bill, he met with leaders of the West Virginia NAACP who hoped to persuade him to support her. .
State activists wanted to understand Manchin’s then unspoken position on the bill. The senator told meeting attendees that he was opposed to some provisions of the bill, but did not name any. And while he didn’t take a position on the bill at the time, it appeared he opposed it.
Manchin joined the May 6 meeting by phone for just 15 minutes before handing it to a staff member.
“We were very dissatisfied with his response and the little meeting he had with us,” said Owens Brown, president of the West Virginia NAACP.
Brown and other black state leaders are deeply frustrated with Manchin and consider stepping up their activism to pressure him to stop opposing key elements of his party’s agenda in Congress . Although only 3.6% of West Virginia residents are black, they argue their support was key to his narrow victory in his last election and he cannot take them for granted in the future.
“If we all sat on our hands and stayed at home, we would have an impact,” said Jennifer Wells, lead organizer of Community Change Action.
During his meeting with the state’s NAACP, Manchin said he supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a more limited bill that would restore the preclearance formula for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, emptied by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Brown sent Manchin a follow-up letter thanking him for his support for John Lewis’s Election Law, but explained that the law, unless applied retroactively, would not address the many voter suppression policies adopted by Republican state legislatures now. The For the People Act, however, would override many of these repressive provisions.
“Respectfully, we ask you to support HR 1 / S. 1 – For the People Act and ask for your written response to this request, ”says the letter of May 18. “We look forward to meeting with you to further discuss this legislation. “
Manchin staff acknowledged receipt of the letter, according to Brown, but the West Virginia NAACP has not heard back from the senator on his position on the bill or a follow-up meeting. Instead, Brown learned that Manchin opposed the For the People Act from the senator’s opinion piece in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on June 6.
The opinion piece said Manchin opposed the bill only because no Republican would support him. Much like during the meeting with Brown and other West Virginia NAACP leaders, Manchin made no objection to any provision of the bill.
Manchin’s opposition to the bill is now firing a backlash among the state’s black leaders that could jeopardize its already precarious political future.
“He’s chosen his side, and his side is not the black community,” Wells said.
Black activists in West Virginia point out that Manchin’s extremely slim margin of victory of less than 19,000 votes in the 2018 Senate election is due to black voters.
As West Virginia leans more and more to the right, a Democratic senator like Manchin must still retain the support of the state’s small black community to stay alive politically. His position on the For the People Act threatens that support.
“African Americans in West Virginia could be his Achilles heel,” Brown said.
Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
There have been other recent race-related issues within the West Virginia Democratic Party, led by Manchin’s cousin, Belinda Biafore, that further fuel dissent against Manchin and his allies in the state.
In the 1970s, the Democratic Party passed bylaws that required all state parties to adopt affirmative action policies to increase diversity in their leadership and membership. West Virginia still hasn’t. The State party has established an Affirmative Action Committee made up of members of Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ and other communities. But at a June meeting held on Zoom, the all-white party leadership announced that it had drafted the affirmative action policy without input from this committee. The meeting erupted when black committee members protested the exclusion from their contribution.
African Americans in West Virginia could be his Achilles heel.
Owens Brown, President of the NAACP in West Virginia
“I hope we fix these fences soon,” said Hollis Lewis, co-chair of the Affirmative Action Committee and co-chair of the Black Caucus of the West Virginia Democratic Party.
This intra-party conflict is fueling Manchin’s growing disapproval among black West Virginia leaders. Either way, black leaders believe Manchin and his allies in the state are simply assuming that they will always be on their side.
“There seems to be an insensitivity on [Manchin’s] part on that because he doesn’t have to worry about African Americans in West Virginia because of the small number of us, ”Brown said. “He may ignore us, or think he doesn’t have to pay attention to us, because of our numbers.”
There is still hope that Manchin will continue to listen to the state’s black leaders as they mobilize their support in West Virginia for the For the People Act within the black community and across the state. as part of a broad coalition supporting the bill.
“This is a defining moment for the legacy,” said Lewis. “This is a time when we are watching you a little bit to do the right thing.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) plans to hold a floor vote on the People’s Law during the week of June 21. The next two weeks will reveal whether voters in Manchin’s home state can reach him.
“I think he enjoys the limelight so much that he hasn’t listened to his own constituency,” said Pastor David Fryson, who is involved with the affirmative action committee.
“We are told no, but Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, they have to be listened to,” Wells said. “People are mobilizing now. There is another West Virginia and we are fighting for change.
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