About Senator John Davison (Jay) Rockefeller IV
Senator John Davison (Jay) Rockefeller IV served the people and state of West Virginia for more than 50 years. Rockefeller came to West Virginia in 1964 as a 27-year-old VISTA volunteer in the small community of Emmons, an experience that shaped his extensive career in public service. He served in the West Virginia House of Delegates (1966-1968); as Secretary of State of West Virginia (1968-1972); President of West Virginia Wesleyan College (1973-1976); and Governor of West Virginia (1977-1985). In 1984 he was elected to the United States Senate and was reelected four times, in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008, before retiring in 2015.
Jay Rockefeller was born in New York, New York, on June 18, 1937, to philanthropists John Davison Rockefeller III and Blanchette Ferry Hooker. He is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, and nephew of businessman and politician Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller. Jay Rockefeller graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, in 1955, and graduated from Harvard University in 1961 with a B.A. in Far Eastern Languages and History. In his junior year at Harvard, he attended the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan, and he spent three years studying Japanese.
In 1964, Rockefeller joined the newly formed national service program Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) aimed at fighting poverty. He served in Emmons, WV, a small mining community located in Boone and Kanawha Counties, for two years. His efforts in Emmons included starting a Little League baseball team, extending school bus service to the rural area, and providing transportation to dental clinics. He built a community center and obtained access to mobile health screenings for women.
Rockefeller entered politics in 1966 as a Kanawha County candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat, breaking with the family’s traditional affiliation with the Republican Party.
In 1967, Rockefeller married Sharon Lee Percy, daughter of U.S. Senator Charles Percy of Illinois. Their Chicago wedding was featured on the cover of Life magazine. They had four children: John Davison “Jamie” V, Valerie, Charles, and Justin Aldrich.
He ran for West Virginia Secretary of State in 1968, winning election against Republican John Callebs. As Secretary of State, Rockefeller pushed for election law reform and broke up several county Democratic political machines. He was successful in making elections more transparent and in reducing instances of election fraud by removing the names of deceased people from the state’s official list of registered voters.
Rockefeller announced his candidacy for governor of West Virginia in 1972 against incumbent Republican Governor Arch Moore. During his campaign, Rockefeller publicly opposed the practice of strip mining in the state and believed this stance upset coal interests and supporters, contributing to his loss. Moore won reelection by 72,000 votes.
Within months of his defeat, Rockefeller was named president of West Virginia Wesleyan College, located in Buckhannon, WV. Some of his biggest accomplishments include increasing enrollment, creating an active recruitment campaign, and streamlining operations. He submitted a letter of resignation to the College in 1975 to prepare for the next gubernatorial election, for which he campaigned throughout 1976.
Rockefeller’s second run for governor was successful: he beat Republican candidate Cecil Underwood by more than 242,000 votes, the largest majority in state history. Natural disaster, strikes, and a worsening economy posed serious challenges during his years as governor. In the spring of 1977, major spring floods in the southern West Virginia counties of McDowell, Wayne, Logan, and Ming wiped entire towns away, and made safe housing above flood plains a focus of Rockefeller’s administration.
The same year saw the beginning of the 111-day national Bituminous Coal Strike of 1977-1978 led by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the AFL-CIO. Rockefeller refused to call upon the National Guard to suppress the miners’ strike. At its conclusion, President Jimmy Carter appointed Rockefeller to lead the first major federal study of coal mining in America in three decades. Rockefeller served as chair of the President’s Commission on Coal and pushed for a national energy strategy that included Appalachian coal. He also created the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, reorganized state agencies, and set up senior centers statewide.
In 1980, Rockefeller ran for a second term as governor, again facing Republican Arch Moore, and won by 64,000 votes. Rockefeller faced another challenging four years and worked to maintain the state’s economy as the federal government cut funding in the midst of an economic downturn, industries struggled to remain open, and unemployment rates across the state rose.
At the end of his governorship, Rockefeller ran for the United States Senate as a Democrat against businessman John Raese of Morgantown, WV. Rockefeller won the 1984 election by four percentage points and went on to fill the seat left vacant after long-time Senator Jennings Randolph retired.
Rockefeller began his service in the U.S. Senate on January 15, 1985, and served until 2015. He became a leading champion for health care reform, an advocate for improving the lives of children and working families, and a supporter of the nation’s soldiers, veterans, and senior citizens. He served as chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs (1993-1994, 2001-2003); the Select Committee on Intelligence (2007-2009); the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (2009-2015); and the Committee on Finance Subcommittee on Medicare and Long-term Care (1989-1994, 2001-2003, 2007-2014). He also served as vice-chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence (2003-2006).
He held additional leadership positions as chairman on the the Pepper Commission (1987-1990), the U.S. Senate Steel Caucus (1989-1994, 2013-2015, co-chair 1995-2013), the National Commission on Children (1989-1993), and the Democratic Technology and Communications Committee (1995-2003). He was also a member of several Senate groups, including the Steering Committee on Democratic Policy, the Alternative Fuels Council, and the Coal Caucus.
Influenced by his two years in Emmons, WV, Rockefeller championed health care issues, and health care reform throughout his Senate career. He supported measures to improve and modernize Medicare, expand access to health care, and increase health coverage for children, authoring the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). He introduced and co-sponsored more than 2,000 pieces of major health-related legislation and provided leadership and policy on health care reform for both the Clinton and Obama administrations. During the latter, he contributed to the successful passage of the Affordable Care Act and was a proponent of providing people with a not-for-profit insurance company backed by the government, commonly known as a public option.
He was appointed to the Senate Finance Committee and its Subcommittee on Medicare and Long-term Care (later known as the Subcommittee on Health Care) in 1987 and served as chairman of the Subcommittee and ranking member until his retirement. In 1987, he also was elected chair of the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care, also known as the Pepper Commission, when the commission’s original leader, Representative Claude Pepper (D-FL), passed away. The Commission was charged with developing legislation that would provide Americans with comprehensive health and long-term care coverage.
In recognition of his contributions to improving the wellbeing of children and families and supporting education, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed Rockefeller chair of the National Commission on Children. Recommendations made by the Commission centered on the creation of a Child Tax Credit, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and improvement to the federal approach to child welfare. As a member of the Finance Committee, he worked on the tax code to provide better financial support to the middle class and working poor. He sought to toughen child support enforcement laws, improve federal adoption and foster care services, and ensure a safe environment for children in the child welfare system with educational programs aimed at substance abuse prevention and treatment. He also worked for renewed investment in schools, school construction, and teachers, particularly those located in rural and impoverished areas.
Senator Rockefeller was an advocate for veterans’ issues, serving on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee for the entirety of his Senate career and acting as both chair and ranking minority member. He especially focused on expanding research and treatment for service-related illnesses, such as Gulf War Illness, Agent Orange, and issues relating to Atomic Veterans. He brought attention to treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the reform of the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system.
Throughout his time in the Senate, Rockefeller was deeply involved with issues related to energy, the environment, coal miners, and mine safety. The first bill Rockefeller introduced in the Senate in 1985 was legislation intended to reduce the backlog of pending black lung cases, and he consistently worked to preserve the Black Lung Trust Fund while protecting coal jobs.
In 1992, he introduced the Coal Act to ensure retired miners received health benefits, and he threatened to keep the Senate in session over Christmas if they refused to pass the bill, which he described as a peak moment in his career. The Coal Act was passed as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, creating two new health care funds to protect the health benefits of all union coal miners, along with their widows and dependents. In 1995, the UMWA named him an honorary member, a distinction rarely bestowed on an elected official, because of his efforts on behalf of miners.
Following the January 2006 West Virginia Sago and Aracoma mine disasters, which together led to the deaths of 14 men, Rockefeller brought several senators from the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee to meet with families of the Sago mine workers. Rockefeller then joined Committee Chair Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Ranking Member Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in drafting the MINER Act, which was signed into law in June 2006, establishing important new mine safety regulations.
Rockefeller also made significant contributions to communications policy. He co-authored the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, known as E-Rate, which was authorized as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, making telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries. In 2010, Rockefeller introduced the Public Safety Spectrum Act, which created FirstNet, a nationwide wireless broadband network for the nation’s first responders. It was signed into law as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. He also supported net neutrality protections to keep the Internet open and free, and in 2011, he successfully led the Senate Floor against a resolution of disapproval of net neutrality rules.
He also championed the steel industry in West Virginia and the nation, earning him the nickname “Senator Steel.” Much of his work, launched largely through his position as co-chair of the Senate Steel Caucus, focused on providing income support and job training to laid-off employees and their families through Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), working with individual steel companies to mitigate the effects of closure and downsizing, and intervening in steel employee strikes. As a member of both the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the Committee on Finance, Rockefeller also addressed concerns about American manufacturing; trade protections and relief for workers negatively impacted by trade; and tax credits supporting research and development and encouraging businesses to build and expand.
For the state of West Virginia, Senator Rockefeller made jobs and economic development a priority. In 1988 he founded the Discover the Real West Virginia Program (DRWV), later formalized as the Discover the Real West Virginia Foundation, which showcased business and investment opportunities in West Virginia. He launched the “Project Harvest” trade mission in 1995 to bring state and international business leaders and investors together. Rockefeller’s early experiences in Japan and knowledge of the language and culture aided in attracting the Toyota company to the state, resulting in the opening of the Buffalo, WV, plant in 1996. In the ensuing years, more than 20 other Japanese companies followed. Further, he encouraged the growth of the West Virginia tourism and travel industry through legislation that conserved lands, designated scenic areas, and promoted better transportation infrastructure.
In January 2013, Senator Rockefeller announced that he would not seek reelection. In his retirement announcement, he reflected that “public service demands, and deserves nothing less than every single thing that you have to bring to bear, and that is what I have given.” As he prepared to leave the Congress in December 2014, his Senate colleagues offered tributes on the Senate Floor recognizing his impressive legislative record, distinguished career, and legacy of compassionate and conscientious service.
Senator Rockefeller donated his papers documenting his 30-year tenure in the United States Senate to the WVU Libraries in 2014. The Libraries’ West Virginia and Regional History Center is responsible for processing, preserving, and providing access to the collection, which includes thousands of records related to his legislative activities and service to the people of the state of West Virginia.