Why Senator Jay Rockefeller's Retirement Is a Big Deal

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (National Journal)

With the announcement Friday of Jay Rockefeller's retirement from the Senate, an era of American politics comes to a close. As National Journal's Matthew Cooper writes, "It marks the end of the old money and nationally known dynasties in the Senate." Names don't get more recognizable than Rockefeller, which even decades after the family's historical peak, still adorns plazas and museums in New York City.

Who might replace Rockefeller in the Senate? Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, has already said she'll run in 2014. More on her here.

So what did Rockefeller accomplish during his last 29 years in the Senate? Below, compiled from the Almanac of American Politics, are the highlights of Rockefeller's life and career.

 Yes, he's one of THOSE Rockefellers

  • Rockefeller's full name, John D. Rockefeller IV, has a familiar ring to those who remember his great-grandfather as the oil billionaire who was America's richest man, and his grandfather as the heir who had more than enough money to build New York's Rockefeller Center, restore Colonial Williamsburg, and found the Museum of Modern Art during the Depression.
  • Two of his uncles became governors — Nelson, governor of New York for 15 years and a man of great building projects and fitful presidential ambitions; and Winthrop, who moved to impoverished and out-of-the-way Arkansas and served four years as a reform governor when the state needed it most.
  • Rockefeller grew up in New York, graduated from Harvard, and lived and studied in Japan for three years. He worked for a year in Washington running the early Peace Corps program in the Philippines. Then, like so many of the elite of those years, he turned his attention from abroad to home, and in 1964 went to the impoverished hill country of West Virginia to work as a VISTA volunteer in Emmons on the Big Coal River.

 And his wealth helped his rise to office.

  •  He was not shy about spending his own millions — his net worth was estimated at nearly $99 million in 2009 — and was elected governor of West Virginia in 1976 and reelected in 1980. In 1984, he ran for the U.S. Senate and beat Republican businessman John Raese by just 52 percent to 48 percent after spending $12 million.

He hates cable news.

  • "There's a little bug inside of me which wants the (Federal Communications Commission) to say to Fox and to MSNBC, "˜Out. Off. End. Goodbye,' '' he said at a November 2010 hearing. "It would be a big favor to our political discourse, to our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people."

As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, he's advocated for consumer rights and Internet privacy.

  • He helped secure $7.2 billion in economic-stimulus money to upgrade broadband infrastructure, telling the Charleston Daily Mail in 2009, "It's a basic part of our belonging to the future of this world." 
  • And he has been a proponent of "Do Not Track," a measure to give consumers the ability to block companies from tracking their online activity.

Rockefeller was a main supporter of the public health insurance option.

  • As chairman of the Finance Committee's health subcommittee, he introduced his own bill in July 2009 creating an optional public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. However, his work on the public option did not pass.
  • Health care has long been a passion of Rockefeller's. He is motivated in part by anger at his mother's treatment during a long terminal illness — an experience that would be much worse for people of ordinary incomes, he thought — and he has sought to increase the number of general practitioners, especially in states such as West Virginia and Arkansas.

Rockefeller's efforts on health care earned him deep admiration from liberals. But they have been less enthralled with his efforts to protect West Virginia's coal industry from legislation to curb global warming.

  • In 2003, he supported cap-and-trade legislation to allow energy-efficient companies to trade credits to larger greenhouse-gas emitters as a way to reduce overall levels of carbon-dioxide emissions. But after Democrats took control of the Senate and sought to craft a bill, Rockefeller was reluctant to back it.

He regrets voting for the Iraq war.

  • After stepping down as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Rockefeller told The Charleston Gazette in April 2011 that his earlier support for the Iraq war was "one of the worst votes in my life" and that U.S. troops should leave the country that year. He also expressed serious misgivings about military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.