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Nick Joe Rahall


Congressman Nick Joe Rahall II represented West Virginia’s Third Congressional District from 1977 to 2015. Born May 20, 1949, in Beckley, he first won election to the House of Representatives in 1976. When Rahall entered Congress in 1977, he was its youngest member. His 38 years in the U.S. House of Representatives is longer than any other West Virginian who has served in that body.

The opportunity for Rahall in 1976 opened when incumbent Congressman Ken Hechler decided to run in the primary for the Democratic nomination for governor, a bid he lost to Jay Rockefeller. Hechler then ran as a write-in candidate to retain his House seat, but Rahall spent more than $100,000 to defeat him in the November general election.

Hechler again tried to reclaim his seat two years later, opposing Rahall in the 1978 primary. But Rahall gathered important endorsements from such leading Democrats as Robert C. Byrd and House Speaker Tip O’Neill and spent considerably more than Hechler. Rahall won with 56 percent of the vote. Hechler challenged Rahall once more in 1990, but Rahall again held on. He turned back a general-election challenge that fall from Republican Marianne Brewster, who came within four percentage points of defeating him.

In 2010, he faced opposition from former Supreme Court Justice Elliot “Spike” Maynard, who tried to depict Rahall as an opponent of surface mining. Rahall defeated Maynard in the general election on November 2, 2010. He was reelected again on November 6, 2012, claiming his 19th term in Congress.

The main issues Rahall concentrated on during his service were transportation, infrastructure, energy, and the environment. Beginning in 2011, he served as the top Democrat on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Previously, Rahall served for 34 years on the Committee on Natural Resources and its chairman for four years beginning in 2007. As one of the key architects of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, he established the Rahall Transportation Institute, located in the Third District at Marshall University.

Rahall looked to tourism to diversify his district’s economy, which historically had depended heavily upon natural resource extraction. In 1978, he authored legislation establishing what would become the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. A decade later he helped enact legislation creating the Gauley River National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National River. Rahall legislation also established the National Coal Heritage Area, comprising most of the counties of the Third District.

As the representative of a district with a long history of coal mining, Rahall was a leader in Congress on mining issues, chairing the House Subcommittee on Mining and Natural Resources from 1985 until 1993. One of his pet causes was a long struggle to reform the Mining Law of 1872. Rahall was the chief sponsor in the House of the 1992 Coal Act, working with Senators Rockefeller, Byrd, and others to secure the benefits of miners under union health care plans. In 2006, he secured funding for the Mine Safety Technology Consortium in Montgomery.

Congressman Rahall springs from the sizable Lebanese community in southern West Virginia. His immigrant grandfather established a prosperous business family, beginning as an itinerant coalfields peddler early in the 20th century. Rahall worked in family businesses before beginning his service in Congress. He is a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley and, in 1971, of Duke University. Rahall also did graduate work at George Washington University in 1972.

Congressman Rahall has three children, Nick Joe III, Rebecca, and Suzanne, from his first marriage. Rahall remarried in 2004, to Melinda Ross.

In 2014, after 38 years of service, Rahall lost his reelection bid to Republican challenger Evan Jenkins and retired from public service at the end of his term in 2015. On August 2, 2023, a historic archive of artifacts and other memorabilia from Rahall’s life and career was dedicated on the campus of WVU Tech in Beckley.

Written by Jim Wallace