John Davison ‘‘Jay’’ Rockefeller IV became West Virginia’s 29th governor in 1977. Rockefeller, whose great-grandfather was at one time considered the richest man in the world, was born in New York City, June 18, 1937. At the age of 12, he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he became interested in Far Eastern studies. He later obtained a degree in Asian languages and history from Harvard, and spent from 1957 to 1960 at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Rockefeller came to West Virginia in 1964 as a poverty volunteer with Action for Appalachian Youth, becoming a social worker in Emmons, Kanawha County. Fighting the carpetbagger label and adopting West Virginia as his home, he climbed to the governor’s office in a dozen years after his arrival in the state. He raised his four children in West Virginia and acquired homes in Charleston and Pocahontas County.
Rockefeller entered politics in January 1966, changing his registration from Republican to Democrat and filing as a Kanawha County candidate for the House of Delegates. His break from the Rockefeller family’s Republican affiliation attracted national attention. In the primary he received the most votes of about 60 candidates for 14 House seats, and in the November general election was the top vote getter.
In 1967, Rockefeller married Sharon Percy, the daughter U.S. Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois. Rockefeller announced his candidacy for secretary of state in 1968. In the primary for his first statewide campaign, he carried every county but Mingo. He defeated his Republican challenger by more than 155,000 votes in the general election.
The first indication that Rockefeller intended to run for governor came in 1970. He declared that ‘‘strip mining of coal must be prohibited by law, completely and forever,’’ a landmark stand by a West Virginia politician. In January 1972, Rockefeller announced his candidacy for governor and overwhelmed his two opponents in the primary, setting up a fierce contest against popular incumbent Arch Moore. In the general election Moore defeated Rockefeller by 73,355 votes. Rockefeller believed his stand on strip mining influenced his poor showing in the coal counties in the southern part of the state, and later altered his position. Campaign spending drew attention, as Rockefeller reported spending more than $1.5 million, then a high for one candidate in a single election. Moore spent $696,029.
Rockefeller’s four-year term as secretary of state ended January 15, 1973, and on March 1 he became president of West Virginia Wesleyan College. There he worked to bring a turnaround in declining enrollment and an improvement in the private college’s financial situation. He submitted his resignation as president of Wesleyan in May 1975, and in October he announced another race for governor.
Easily outdistancing the other seven Democratic candidates in the primary, Rockefeller carried every county but Barbour and Monroe. The state Supreme Court had ruled Moore could not run for a third consecutive term, and former Gov. Cecil Underwood became the Republican nominee. Wealth once again became an issue. In the general election Rockefeller defeated Underwood by a vote of almost two to one, 495,659 to 253,423, the largest majority in state history. Records showed almost $2.8 million had been spent on Rockefeller’s campaign.
The new governor had to deal with heavy snowfalls across the state, acute fuel shortages, rampaging floods, and a 111-day coal strike during his administration. On his recommendation, large segments of state government were reorganized, to include the state Department of Health, the Department of Culture and History, and the creation of a state Department of Economic and Community Development. Rockefeller’s establishment of the position of special assistant to the governor for economic and community development was his attempt to fulfill a campaign promise to give priority to economic development. Among the achievements was the location of a $500 million coal liquefaction demonstration plant in Morgantown.
Governor Rockefeller moved into the national spotlight in 1978 by becoming chairman of the President’s Commission on Coal. He insisted that coal be given a higher standing in the national energy policy and worked to expand coal markets in the U.S. and abroad. In 1979, during the third year of his term, Rockefeller carried out a campaign promise by persuading the legislature to gradually eliminate the three percent sales tax on food. The tax was returned and increased after his term as governor.
With the election of 1980, the incumbent Rockefeller again faced Arch Moore. This time Rockefeller prevailed, defeating Moore by about 64,500 votes. Rockefeller reported in a pre-election statement that he would spend $9.5 million in this campaign, but the final report after the election showed that he spent closer to $12 million. Moore spent about $1 million in his unsuccessful effort.
After his second term as governor, a time in which the state plunged into a deep recession, Rockefeller was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and reelected four times. As a senator, he has continued to emphasize economic development, and was successful in persuading Toyota to build a plant in Putnam County. He has taken a particular interest in the steel industry. He was among those aiding the employee buyout of Weirton Steel in 1984 and has worked to arrange aid and protection for American steelworkers. He was successful in passing legislation in 1992 to ensure continued funding of the United Mine Workers health insurance through a levy on coal production. Rockefeller has continued to advocate comprehensive health care reform.
In the 2004 presidential campaign there was speculation that Rockefeller might be selected as John Kerry’s running mate, but he said at the time, ‘‘I have no interest in any other job than being the senator from West Virginia.’’ He has served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and chairman of the Finance Subcommittee on Health Care. Other assignments include committees on Intelligence, Veterans’ Affairs, and Taxation.
In January 2013, Rockefeller announced that he would not seek reelection in 2014. In announcing his retirement, Rockefeller said, “West Virginia has become my life and my cause. 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.”
This Article was written by Richard S. Grimes
Last Revised on January 11, 2013