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Manchin’s proxy race for governor

It’s been just over one year since U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced he would remain in the Senate and not seek the Democratic nomination for governor, but it sure seems to me like he’s still running.

No, Manchin won’t be on the ballot in November. His proxy, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango will be. But Manchin, for the first time since winning a special election from the Senate seat once represented by the late Robert C. Byrd, is using his federal office as an extension of the Salango campaign.

I don’t recall him using his office to help Earl Ray Tomblin in 2012. While it’s known Manchin recruited Jim Justice in 2016 and surrounded him with his loyal political operatives, I don’t recall Manchin using the machinery of his Senate office to help Justice, then a Democrat, win the 2016 election for governor.

He didn’t have to. The Manchin machine is known to all, starting with his uncle A. James Manchin in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s known, and even expected, that a candidate with the blessing of Joe Manchin is going to have doors opened that otherwise would remain shut to other Democratic candidates. Even the state Democratic Executive Committee remains tightly controlled by Manchin loyalists.

That’s all fine. That’s how political parties function, with factions and with those factions competing against or cooperating with each other. The Republican Party has them, too.

My issue with Manchin using his office to put his fingers on the scale of the Nov. 3 election for governor and using his Senate communications team via press releases, public statements, and even using the threat of bills to attack Justice, often unfairly.

First, it was Manchin in May, June and July accusing the governor of using $1.25 billion sent to the state from the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act meant for state and local government coronavirus expenses as a “political slush fund.” The issue was money was flowing out of the fund to cities and counties slowly, which it was at first.

Part of that was trying to navigate the red tape put in place by the Treasury Department governing how that money could be used. The other part was Justice had high hopes either Congress or the Treasury Department would change the rules to allow those funds to be used for budget backfill, which is really what state and local governments needed.

By the time Manchin started yelling about the slowdown, money had already been moving. He issued several releases criticizing Justice for not getting the money out, incorrectly said the state could simply start writing checks to every county and city (the state can’t do that, as it has to make sure that funds are going to reimburse local governments for approved coronavirus-related expenses) and said he was introducing legislation to require states that didn’t push those funds out by the end of June to explain why (never mind that the money is supposed to be available for reimbursements through the end of the year).

By the way, Manchin never did introduce that bill. If you happen to find it on the congressional bill track website, let me know. But if it’s not there, then I have no idea what the point was of talking about a bill you never intended to introduce.

I can cite a more recent example. Justice and a group of bipartisan state lawmakers and elected officials announced a plan Thursday to use an executive order to remove caps on a loan program meant to fund broadband expansion to encourage broadband internet providers to participate in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction.

The FCC auction will allocate up to $20.8 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas. Of that amount, West Virginia is eligible for up to $766 million in federal funding over 10 years for rural broadband expansion. The first phase of the auction starts Oct. 22.

Justice’s announcement and executive order, which will be combined later with legislation, was met with mostly bipartisan praise. The announcement was made with Republican Auditor J.B. McCuskey, Democratic Treasurer John Perdue, Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael, Republican House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, Democratic House Minority Leader Tim Miley, Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell.

Here is what Manchin had to say:

“West Virginia is not getting $766 million in federal funds through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund just because the governor signed an executive order saying he wants it to happen. Unfortunately, as of the most recent FCC report on Sept. 1, there isn’t even a single internet service provider in the state that’s eligible to bid on this funding right now.”

First, this is an awfully catty response to a project that even had support from Democratic legislative leaders who have never been shy about criticizing Justice in the past. No one said West Virginia was guaranteed all of that $766 million. And I’m unsure how Manchin would know who is eligible or who is not to bid on the projects.

Second, Manchin is the last person who should criticize another governor’s broadband expansion project. After all, the state screwed up a $126 million broadband expansion project during Manchin’s second term as governor. The state purchased 1,164 over-powered, unusable routers meant for libraries, schools and other state facilities at a cost of $24 million.

Another $40 million was paid to Frontier Communications from that federal grant to build out a statewide broadband network that it was supposed to share. Not only did they not share, but the U.S. Department of Commerce determined Frontier marked up invoices to the state by as much as 35 percent and charged the state millions in indirect costs that were not allowable. The state was forced to pay $4.6 million last May to repay the federal government for Frontier’s billings. Nearly 10 years later, how’s your internet working out for you?

Apparently, it’s easy to sling stones when one isn’t sitting behind the governor’s desk anymore.

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