LEWISBURG, W.Va. — “We try not to talk about it too much. We try to have fun here,” a shopkeeper told Joe Manchin III when he asked her what she thinks of Washington.
No one in West Virginia really wants to talk about Washington, D.C., but that didn't stop the Democratic senator from glad-handing at the state fair and around the idyllic small town of Lewisburg on Wednesday.
Manchin walked around the state fairgrounds here in a light yellow West Virginia polo, and most people still call him “governor.” Those who realize they’ve sent him to D.C. shrug off the nation’s capital like it’s some alien land they’d prefer to ignore. There were very few antagonistic moments with “Joe,” though he is well-equipped with a “common sense” talking point on the rarer-than-you’d-think occasions he is approached about his bill to establish more background checks for guns.
Spending a day with a senator at a state fair — particularly with one such as Manchin, who genuinely seems to enjoy these things — is like continuously chasing after a kid in his favorite candy store. In two and half hours, Manchin has posed with dozens of home state “brothers,” “honeys” and “buddies" and played two carnival games. He won a stuffed animal for a girl by popping a balloon with a dart, but lost to a fellow Mountaineer in a water gun race.
“I was snookered,” he says to the constituent victor and team of cameras filming the game, after the victor shot up her right arm in triumph.
He also scarfed down a barbecue beef sandwich and was bestowed with a walking stick by another West Virginian after the senator vows he is “100 percent sure” he has accepted Jesus into his heart.
The typical Beltway topics of the deficit or horse race politics are mostly lost on the fair crowd. Instead, lots of people want to talk about coal.
“Washington is 100 percent against us. We’re not against Washington,” says M.E. Walker, who said he is retired, uttering the dirty “W” word, after chatting briefly with Manchin on the state fairgrounds. “They’re trying to take our coal jobs.”
There’s no easy road to building a post-coal West Virginia, especially through the Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. Tourism is one of the few answers, and a walking tour after the fair through downtown Lewisburg — selected by Budget Travel in 2011 as the “coolest small town in America,” they’ll remind you at every corner — shows just how hard West Virginians are trying where they can to prop up their service industries.
It’s in a clothing and crafts store in downtown Lewisburg where the shopkeeper told Manchin they prefer not to talk about Washington and to have fun instead. She also told him that most of her business comes from people who don’t live in West Virginia, but rather tourists who pop into town from other states while they are visiting a nearby mountain resort.
The owner of the store talked about the town being a "destination," and Manchin noted the town could be a model for others. "Well, we built that," the shopkeeper says in a line that rang eerily familiar from the 2012 election.
"The state supported the theater," the former governor reminds her, in the one moment all day where he seemed to correct a constituent, "which is difficult in tough times."
Manchin and Lewisburg’s mayor then attended a roundtable with residents in the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center down the street, or more precisely in the “Rahall Conference Room” there, because, of course, everything has a familiar name in West Virginia.
Here Manchin let constituents talk, but he did little to correct them when they asserted things that just weren’t true. When he asked about “Obamacare,” one woman expressed dismay that federal workers will be exempt from the law, and Manchin said nothing to her about that being untrue. Another constituent said the law is too complicated and that he doesn't understand it, and Manchin agreed that it's complicated but didn't further explain it. The senator also mentioned that he believed the IRS targeted groups for “political reasons” and broached foreign policy by briefly asking those around the table what they think of “this whole Syrian thing.”
At one point, he told the roundtable that everyone needs to pay their share because there are not enough rich people to pick up the tab (the richest one percent of Americans control between 35 and 40 percent of the nation’s financial wealth).
And he reiterated a line on guns he used repeatedly at the state fair and likely has been well-honed in his time at home since the spring: "Don't you want to know if a person is a criminal or a crazy person or a terrorist?" Many in the group nod.
After more than an hour, staffers tried to cut off Manchin, who seemed content to talk all day, and get him into the official white van painted on the back and sides with "The Office of Senator Joe Manchin" and "for official business only."
But Manchin won't leave until he's shaken every hand and hugged most every participant.