Pressing Manchin: From kayaks to Capitol Hill, West Virginians seek to keep Build Back Better Afloat 


October 6, 2021

It’s been a busy week for a convoy of West Virginians who traveled to Washington, D.C. to make their case to Senator Joe Manchin that the Mountain State needs President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. 

The “fun” began last week, when members of the entourage climbed into kayaks to visit Manchin’s yacht, Almost Heaven, which he maintains on the Potomac River, lives in when he is in D.C., and uses to entertain members of Congress, congressional staff, and the occasional White House staff member. (By and large, the yacht is a journalist-free zone, at least where on-the-record conversations are concerned.)

As it happened, during one of several trips to Almost Heaven last week, the “kayaktivists” found Manchin at home, and once he learned that some of the kayakers were from West Virginia, he greeted them warmly and engaged in conversation. 

While West Virginia’s senior senator dodged many of the group’s questions and comments, he did seem to attempt to find common ground – especially on the issue of tax fairness. 

“We’re going to make the rich and famous pay,” Manchin said. “I definitely agree. That’s the number one thing we should be doing, is fixing the tax code. Everybody pays their fair share. We should also be negotiating for lower drug prices.” 

The exchange, captured on video, posted on YouTube, tweeted out, and picked up by media outlets around the world, did not result in Manchin’s committing to passage of a robust Build Back Better package – although he did promise a bill would get done. But the senator did agree to a meeting in his office with the West Virginians. 

That meeting took place Monday, and was followed Monday afternoon by a Capitol Hill news conference where some of the West Virginians who traveled to D.C. spoke. 

Loretta Young, representing Race Matters West Virginia, expressed frustration and disappointment because, during their private meeting with Manchin, the senator talked about former President Trump’s level of support in West Virginia. Trump carried the state by more than 30 percentage points and Manchin said that level of popularity among the state’s voters limited his ability to fully support President Biden’s plan, which would, in time, be completely paid for by tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and other savings. 

“I ask you today: what is more important – political party or human needs?” Young told reporters afterwards. “I believe human needs out-trumps political party.” 

In fact, a large majority of West Virginians support the Build Back Better package if it is funded by the rich paying their fair share.  In a recent poll of West Virginia registered voters, about 65 – 70 percent supported the Build Back Better investment bill if it were paid for by various tax increases on the ultra-wealthy. 

Katonya Hart, also representing Race Matters West Virginia, shared her experience of recently being diagnosed with diabetes and, as part of her work as a pharmacy technician, seeing elderly people who cannot afford home care. (Under Build Back Better, West Virginia would see a substantial increase in home and community-based services, including more pay for home care workers. And 8,000 additional seniors and people with disabilities would receive home care services.) 

“I’m finding myself, as a new diabetic, worrying about, do I keep this job or do I try to get another one. And if I try to get another one, how long will it take before the insurance kicks in so that I can be sure I have the medications I need?” Hart said. 

The kayak theme permeated this week’s news conference, with supporters holding signs that read, “Don’t Sink West Virginia,” “Don’t Sink our Health Care” and “Don’t Sink Our Bill.” 

Leann Williams, representing Young West Virginia, is an organizer and graduate student at West Virginia University. A native of the state, she remembers growing up watching her father and other relatives working 70-80 hours a week because, with the state’s low median wages, they had to do that to remain above the poverty line. (West Virginia ranks second from last in median wages and highest in the number of people leaving the state. Build Back Better in particular would raise salary levels in the health care and education sectors, which combined employ about 17 percent of the state’s adult work force.) 

“The Child Tax Credit and Paid Family and Medical Leave can bring thousands of West Virginia children out of poverty, give low- and middle-class West Virginians a break that they so deserve, and allow parents and guardians of little Mountaineers the quality time and experiences we all value,” Williams said. “I want that for my future.” 

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, 301,000 West Virginia children under age 18,  were in families receiving the CTC when its first advance payment was distributed on July 15. The average payment per family was $431 in July, with more than $77 million flowing to the state in that month alone. The vast majority of West Virginia’s children – 94 percent! – will benefit. Of these, some 50,000 will either be lifted above the poverty line by the CTC or raised closer to the poverty line, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The CTC expansion expires at the end of the year unless Congress acts. 

In her remarks, Williams also endorsed other parts of Build Back Better: two free years of community college, child care expansion and affordability, and paid pre-K for every child. “Grow up, West Virginia, because I can only stay in a state that grows with me,” Williams said. 

During the group’s private meeting with Manchin, the senator expressed the desire to hear from more West Virginians about what they think of the proposed legislation, which polls show is quite popular. 

Zachary Fancher, a resident of Marion County, West Virginia, said it is one thing for West Virginians to travel to D.C. and meet with Manchin (in his office or by kayak!) But what really needs to happen, Fancher said, is for Manchin to travel to West Virginia and listen to his constituents. 

“Not all of us have the luxury in this state to come to D.C. and advocate our position in support of the Build Back Better agenda,” Fancher said. “We really need Senator Manchin to come home to West Virginia and listen to the people in the state so we can show him there’s overwhelming support.”