Local Democratic party members, leaders, and elected officials traveled to Charleston earlier this month to attend the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner, an annual fund raiser, which this year doubled as a salute to Senator Jay Rockefeller for his nearly 50 years of service to West Virginia.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was the keynote speaker, spoke about his personal history with the West Virginia Senator. "He is a man of extraordinary character, a generous and decent man, who is one of the greatest senators that I have ever worked with," said Biden. The Vice President, who was elected to the Senate seven times and served with Rockefeller for 24 years, said, "There's not a single man or woman in the Senate who does not trust Jay Rockefeller, not one." Biden emphasized no one in the U.S. Senate commands more respect than the senior statesman from West Virginia. The crowd of 1,500 rose to their feet in a standing ovation when the Vice President stated, "It can be said of Jay Rockefeller what I have said of Bob Byrd. West Virginia is written on his heart. He wears it on his sleeve. He takes such pride in this place. He takes such pride in all of you."
Senator Joe Manchin, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, Congressman Nick Joe Rahall, and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, among others, also praised Rockefeller, 76, who will retire in early 2015 after serving 30 years in the Senate.
Nettie and Don Mason attend the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner, where Don Mason, county commission president, was named Wetzel County’s Democrat of the Year. (Photo by Katherine Stalnaker)
Senator Rockefeller took the stage with his wife Sharon and daughter Valerie, as the rest of the Rockefeller family watched from the crowd. The three began reflecting on what will be a half century of service once the Senator leaves office. It was 1964 when a 27-year old Rockefeller first came to West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer assigned to Emmons, in southern West Virginia. "Every single day since my days in Emmons, I've never changed. I've always fought for the same things," he said. Rockefeller pointed out the principles he learned as a young man in West Virginia have guided him through his political career that started in 1966 in the House of Delegates, and have taken him through leadership roles as Secretary of State, president of West Virginia Wesleyan, governor, and, finally, United States Senator.
Rockefeller said with pride "It's all about helping people, and the tougher the job, the deeper the satisfaction." He asked "Who gets to be so lucky as to fight on a broad scale for jobs, for health care, for veterans, for seniors, for working people, for miners with black lung, for people who have COPD?" Rockefeller mentioned the passage of the 1992 Coal Act, which helped miners get health benefits from coal companies, and the 1994 Violence Against Women Act as two of the highlights of his career. "It's not easy. It's frustrating. Bureaucracies are crushing." Rockefeller said of public service. "But I am proud of what I have done."
After his reflections, Rockefeller publicly endorsed Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 2014, as his successor. Rockefeller said there is important work to be done to continue his efforts, citing improvements for coal miners, abused women, low income families, and others. "I don't want that work to be passed on to the wrong person. I want it to be passed on to the right person," he said, before calling on those attending to support Tennant.
Senate President and Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) sent a video-taped message to Rockefeller since he could not be in attendance. Kessler was in China meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss plans to strengthen economic and investment ties between Taiwan and West Virginia.
Wetzel County Commissioner and long time public servant Don Mason was also recognized on stage as the 2013 Wetzel County Democrat of the Year.
Karen Coria, a Putnam County Democratic leader and coordinator of the 28th annual awards ceremony indicated that the award was established to recognize local party officials and volunteers whom Democratic leaders feel have contributed most to the party's efforts. "Our goal is to recognize these special people who have distinguished themselves by contributing to our society, by working within the framework of our democracy and political party system. The efforts of the honoree demonstrate the importance of the work of every individual in affecting the outcome of local, state and national races. These people are the truly effective party workers."
Also in attendance were Nettie Mason, Delegate Dave Pethel, Commissioner Larry Lemon and his wife Anita, and officers of the Wetzel County Democratic Women including President Joyce Brown, Vice President Carol Gorby, Secretary Kimberly Frum, Treasurer Carol Gorby, and incoming 2014 President Frances Headley. Abdul Al-Janaby was also present and acted as photographer for the Wetzel County group.