The Washington Post

When do politicians speak their minds? When they are about to retire.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller  (D) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Earlier today, we brought you a sampling of the coal state Democratic reaction to the Obama administration's new proposal to curb carbon emissions. It was overwhelmingly negative.

Then came a statement from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is retiring at the end of the current term. It was very different.

"The EPA announced today a major step in reducing carbon emissions, and I support its goal of safeguarding the public’s health. Strengthening West Virginians’ health and well being has always been at the heart of my career in public service," he said.

In a state that produces more coal than any other besides Wyoming, it's hard to say something like that without big-time political repercussions. Just ask Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee for Rockefeller's job. She vowed to "stand up to President Obama, Gina McCarthy and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs."

Freed from the political constraints of campaigning, Rockefeller is free to speak his mind. His statement is reminiscent of another long-serving Democratic senator from West Virginia, the late Robert Byrd, who in 2009 penned a lengthy op-ed titled "Coal Must Embrace the Future." (Though Rockefeller has gone against the grain on climate issues before, whereas Byrd was doing a 180.)

"To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say 'deal me out.' West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table," Byrd wrote. He died less than a year later.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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