CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Senate’s newest member says he’s sticking with his pledge to embrace the work ethic of the man he succeeded, the late Robert C. Byrd.
Sen. Carte Goodwin also relies on advice from his father, who died in April, from when he followed the family tradition and became a lawyer.
“My dad used to always say, ‘Ninety percent of practicing law is preparation, and 10 percent is just having good judgment”’ Goodwin told The Associated Press last week. “I certainly think that applies here.”
For the West Virginia Democrat, the result has meant days packed with committee meetings, floor sessions and constituent calls. Evenings were spent poring over materials to prepare for upcoming votes before the August recess.
Less than three weeks since his swearing-in, the West Virginia Democrat has helped extend unemployment benefits and confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. He’s quizzed economic experts about the recovery as a member of the Senate Budget Committee. From his seat on the Armed Services Committee, he’s fielded an update on Mideast military operations from U.S. Central Command’s new top general.
Goodwin has also dined with the Air Force chief of staff at a private dinner with four other senators. President Barack Obama phoned him upon his appointment to the Senate, but has yet to invite him to the White House or for one of his famous pickup basketball games. The 6-foot-3 Goodwin was a standout at Ripley High, once scoring 43 points in one game.
“A friend asked me, ‘If you get invited to play basketball, do you let him win?”’ Goodwin said. “I said, ‘Well, since I haven’t played a pickup game of basketball for five or six years, I don’t know if it will be up to me.”’
The 36-year-old has also already staked out a position on one of the thornier issues confronting Congress: the future of coal. He said he strives as well to find his own voice.
“I took an oath ... I’m the only one who can fulfill it,” Goodwin said. “I have to make independent and informed judgments on my own.”
Goodwin cited his efforts to bone up on Kagan before last week’s 63-37 vote. He read her written responses to senators, her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and detailed memos from its staff.
Invoking Byrd and his late father, Goodwin considers such homework “imperative, and expected.”
“The more information I have on issues like that, or anything that I am going to cast a vote on here during my limited tenure representing the people of West Virginia, I want to have a good grasp on it,” Goodwin said.
Sworn in July 20, Goodwin’s appointment lasts until voters choose someone in November to serve out the bulk of what remains of Byrd’s term. Goodwin is not a candidate in that special election.
“I’ve joked that as soon as I get my sea legs, it will probably be about time for me to drive back to Charleston,” he said.
He makes plain that his predecessor continues to cast a long shadow. Byrd died June 28 as history’s longest-serving member of Congress. Amid a career marked by a mastery of Senate history and procedure, and a knack for steering billions in federal funds for West Virginia, the 92-year-old Democrat served more than a half-century in the Senate in addition to three terms in the U.S. House.
In the months before his death, Byrd had sought to advance the debate over coal and climate change. In one opinion column, he argued both that coal remains an essential energy source and that the mountaintop removal method of surface mining “has a diminishing constituency.”
“The way I read that letter, it was simply Sen. Byrd saying we need to be cognizant of the world around us, and we need to consider balance,” Goodwin said.
The Senate recently shelved a proposal to cap greenhouse gases, such as from burning coal, blamed for global warming. But with coal a key state industry, Goodwin remains opposed to “anything that threatens West Virginia jobs, West Virginia families or the long-term economic security of our state.”
Goodwin has inherited Byrd’s actual seat on the Senate floor, a second-row desk on an aisle and directly behind Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. He’s also been aided by Sen. Jay Rockefeller. The fellow West Virginia Democrat has lent him staff and helped him set up his space in the Russell Senate Office Building.
“I come up here, I don’t have a telephone, I don’t have a place to sit down, and I’m sworn in and they’re running bills that I’m expected to vote on,” Goodwin recalled.
Goodwin’s wife is Rockefeller’s in-state director. He also remains thankful to Gov. Joe Manchin, who appointed him to the seat and whom he considers a friend and mentor.