The end of the Rockefeller political dynasty?

January 11, 2013

The decision by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to retire in 2014 means the nation will likely be without a Rockefeller in high office for the first time in four decades and just the second time since the 1950s.


Nelson Rockefeller and his wife, Happy, in 1963. (AP)

The Rockefeller political dynasty is surely one of the greatest in American history, including a vice president and multiple senators and governors representing much of the eastern half of the country. Several big-name politicians have married into the family, which became influential in the late 1800s and early 1900s thanks to patriarch, oil baron and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jay's great-grandfather.

Jay (born John D. Rockefeller IV), 75, is the longest-serving member of the family and the lone Democrat bearing the family name. He served in the West Virginia state legislature, as secretary of state, as governor and as senator since 1985 -- a career spanning five decades in total.

Over the course of his career, Rockefeller has chaired the Veterans Affairs, Intelligence and Commerce committees. He is known for his work on health care, including supporting Hillary Clinton's 1993 effort and co-authoring the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the late 90s. More recently, he became well-known for investigating George W. Bush's case for going to war in Iraq, emerging as a top critic of Bush's.

His uncle Nelson was governor of New York and vice president under Gerald Ford and is perhaps best-known for being synonymous with liberal-to-moderate Republican politics. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination three times in the 1960s,  often serving as a moderate counterpoint to Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater.

His uncle Winthrop was a reform-minded Republican governor of strongly Democratic Arkansas in the 1960s; and his cousin Win was lieutenant governor of Arkansas for a decade under then-Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), according to the Political Graveyard. His great-grandfather, Nelson Aldrich, was also a three-term Republican senator from Rhode Island around the same time John D. Rockefeller was building his oil business.

In addition, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and former senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) both married into the family (they later got divorced), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and former senator Charles Percy (R-Ill.) are related as well.

While Dayton and Whitehouse remain in office, Rockefeller's retirement likely means there will be nobody with that name in high office come 2015.

The most politically active of Rockefeller's children is Justin Rockefeller, 33, but he lives in New York and hasn't run for office in his own right yet.

Asked about his political future in 2005, he said: "I doubt I’ll run for elected office. But my father’s still an inspiration. He was offered a senatorship in New York by Nelson after RFK was killed. Instead he moved to West Virginia and worked his way up to the Senate himself."

Jay's three other children have all spent time in academia in recent years, including Charles, Valerie (now Valerie Carnegie Wayne) and John V (Jamie), who is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. None lives in West Virginia.

No other Rockefellers appear to hold political office at this time.

Similarly, the Kennedy family recently had a long streak of holding political office (64 years!) broken, when Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) died in 2009 and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) retired in 2011. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) ended the two-year drought when he was sworn in last week.

Update on 1/16: It has been brought to The Fix's attention that Will Rockefeller, who is the son of Win Rockefeller and grandson of Winthrop Rockefeller and who is in his mid-20s, works in Sen. John Boozman's (R-Ark.) office and is seen by some in the GOP as potentially returning the family to political office one day.

Asked in a mid-2012 interview whether he might run, Will Rockefeller offered this: "Perhaps. A lot of people ask me when I’m running as opposed to whether I am, as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I don’t think anyone wants a 25-year-old making decisions that affect the lives of individuals around the state. I know I currently don’t have the experience, maturity, nor desire to run at this time. ... I’m not sure what the future holds."

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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