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‘Larry and I will always be together’: Joe Manchin’s closest political ally cashes in on senator’s rise

A longtime friend of the West Virginia senator has a growing lobbying business in Washington as companies seek to understand and influence the key lawmaker

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) arrives for a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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During a heated 2015 meeting at a law firm in Clarksburg, W.Va., Larry Puccio insisted that the West Virginia Democratic Party should unify behind billionaire Jim Justice in the race for governor.

When some of the Democratic officials in the room objected — Justice until recently had been a registered Republican — Puccio offered to call the man who for the past three decades has been his friend, business partner, boss, political ally and patron: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

“Larry’s position was, ‘Justice and I will run the party, and everything else, as we desire.' I was pushing back on that,’ ” said Chris Regan, then the vice chairman of West Virginia’s Democratic Party, who attended the meeting. Puccio was a senior adviser at the time for Justice’s campaign. “I remember Larry just yelling back: ‘We can get Manchin on the phone, if you need to hear it from him.’ ”

Manchin is now the Senate’s swing vote and one of the most powerful men in Washington, and Puccio has figured out how to monetize his ability to get his old boss on the phone.

Barely a month after Democrats reclaimed the Senate last year, turning the ability to sway Manchin into a sought-after skill, Puccio registered for the first time as a federal lobbyist. In less than a year, Puccio has cashed in. He and a partner have lobbied the Senate almost exclusively, according to disclosure filings, pulling in more than $310,000 in addition to his earnings from his extensive state-level lobbying business in West Virginia.

Puccio isn’t the only Manchin ally who’s been lured to K Street — several top lobbying firms snapped up former Manchin aides last year — but he goes back further with Manchin than almost anyone else in politics. With trillions of dollars tied to Manchin’s vote, Washington clients have sought out Puccio’s guidance on how to influence the senator.

“Larry has always been with Joe. We all started out together. Their friendship is rock solid,” said Tom Mainella, the Democratic mayor of Fairmont, W.Va., and a friend of both men.

In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) changed his top line spending number for President Biden’s agenda more than half a dozen times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Manchin, 74, and Puccio, 66, have known each other since Puccio was 13 or 14, as Manchin once said. They both come from Italian American families in West Virginia’s coal-heavy Marion County, and as Manchin became a political force in the state, Puccio rose with him.

Puccio spent nearly a decade as Manchin’s right-hand man, running his campaigns for secretary of state and for governor and serving as his chief of staff in both offices. When he stepped down in 2010 to become a lobbyist in the state, Manchin helped install him as the state party chairman and later tapped him to run Manchin’s leadership PAC.

Many West Virginia Democrats view the two of them as inseparable, with Puccio able to speak on Manchin’s behalf in a way that no other aide or ally could. Their relationship even weathered the 2020 election, in which Justice ran for reelection after abandoning the Democratic Party in 2017 to become a Republican. Manchin backed Justice’s Democratic challenger, but Puccio — who has lobbied for years on behalf of Justice’s companies — stuck with Justice.

Manchin made clear at the time that he didn’t hold it against him.

“Larry and I will always be together,” Manchin told West Virginia’s MetroNews.

This story is based on more than 20 interviews with friends of Manchin and Puccio, current and former West Virginia Democratic officials, lobbyists and others familiar with their relationship, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

Manchin declined an interview request, and his office declined to answer written questions. Puccio didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Senator Manchin and Mr. Puccio have been friends for years,” a Manchin spokesperson told The Washington Post in a statement. “Senator Manchin’s decisions are always driven by the best interests of West Virginians and not influenced by lobbying or friendship.”

Puccio and Manchin are often described as an incongruous pair: Manchin is 6-foot-3, a former football player, broad-shouldered and clean-shaven, while Puccio is goateed and roughly 5-foot-4.

“Whenever I saw Joe, there’d be this short guy with the goatee with him. That’s how I found out he was the right-hand man,” said Jeffrey Kessler, a former president of the West Virginia state Senate. “They’ve been confidants forever.”

Puccio’s style complements Manchin’s, according to those who know them.

Puccio is gregarious and animated — the kind of lobbyist who often asks about family and remembers hobbies. (“Larry’s super personable — super personable — you would think he’s your best friend,” one longtime West Virginia Democrat said.) In private, critics say, Puccio can be transactional and curt, but even opponents acknowledge he has a keen eye for polling. Talking to MetroNews, Manchin credited Puccio with being able to “eliminate the political B.S. that goes on. Larry’s been able to go through that like a knife through butter.”

“I find him to be very direct and extremely candid,” Hoppy Kercheval, the longtime West Virginia radio host on whose show Manchin is a frequent guest, said of Puccio. “He tells you exactly what is on his mind. He and I have had more than our share of arguments over the years, sometimes very heated, but it’s never personal.”

Puccio’s relationship with Manchin has made him a valuable lobbyist in Washington, where Manchin wields an effective veto over trillions of dollars in spending. Manchin’s declaration in December that he couldn’t vote for Democrats’ health-care, child-care and climate package — President Biden’s top legislative priority — doomed the bill for now, and his opposition to some policy ideas kept them from being included in the legislation in the first place.

The Appalachian Natural Gas Operators Coalition paid Puccio and his partner, Angel Moore, $180,000 last year to lobby the Senate and the Energy Department on “proposed taxes and fees related to energy production,” according to disclosure filings.

One of the natural gas industry’s top lobbying priorities last year was stripping the methane fee — dubbed the “natural gas tax” by opponents — out of the Build Back Better Act.

The fee — meant to cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas — represented a particular threat to one of the companies in the coalition, Diversified Energy. The company is the eighth-largest methane emitter relative to its natural gas production, according to an analysis of the 100 largest oil and natural gas producers in the country conducted last year for Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit.

“Their entire model is buying tired old wells and extracting the last bits of revenue they can out of them,” said Andrew Logan, the nonprofit’s senior director of oil and gas. “And the economics of that may not work in a world that actually puts a value on methane emissions.”

Manchin repeatedly expressed reservations about the methane fee proposal last year. His office declined to say if Puccio ever lobbied Manchin on the methane fee. The companies in the coalition also did not respond to questions about whether Puccio lobbied Manchin on the fee.

But there’s also evidence that Puccio may have benefited from his relationship with Manchin even without changing the senator’s views.

Humanity Forward, which has advocated for extending Biden’s expanded child tax credit, enlisted Puccio in December and paid him $10,000 over less than a month. RepresentUS, a voting rights group, paid Puccio $15,000 to lobby on its behalf for several months last year, according to disclosure filings. So far, at least, Manchin has not agreed to extend the tax credit or to change the filibuster to support voting rights.

Humanity Forward and RepresentUS did not return requests for comment.

“Larry has always been with Joe, and that may be why some people want Larry to twist the senator’s arm about Build Back Better. But I don’t think anyone is going to twist the senator’s arm,” said Mainella, the Democratic mayor of Fairmont. “The senator is doing what he knows is the right thing, regardless of if Jesus Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him to do it — I just don’t think he would.”

Simply learning where Manchin stands on an issue is itself a highly prized commodity — information hungrily sought out by investors as well as reporters, even though rumors about his positions often proven incorrect or conflicting. In such an environment, Manchin’s trust in Puccio’s discretion may be particularly valuable.

Manchin “can share thoughts with Larry, or Pucci — you know, a lot of people call him Pucci — that never go beyond Larry’s ears,” said former congressman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), who considers both men friends. “He’s tight-lipped.”

Manchin has said repeatedly that he takes into consideration the views of his West Virginia constituents above all others when evaluating legislation. This has set off a scramble among national groups trying to prove that their views are, in fact, popular in West Virginia.

Jim McKay, the director of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, which has pushed Manchin to support an extension of Biden’s expanded child tax credit, said the hunt for an “authentic West Virginia connection” had led national organizations to pour into the state.

“There are some groups that are working alongside those of us in West Virginia,” McKay said, “but there are also those saying: ‘My second cousin twice removed drove through Charleston one time, so Manchin should listen to us.’ ”

Puccio’s rise in West Virginia was sometimes met by the same complaints that have dogged Manchin — that they have moved the Democratic Party too far left and that they are too close to the coal industry. The two led a group of investors aimed at building a tannery that was later abandoned amid local pushback over its impact on a nearby river, said Leslee McCarty, who helped lead a petition against the sale and as a result later campaigned against Manchin for office.

Walt Auvil, a member of the West Virginia state Democratic executive committee, ran against Puccio for state party chair after Manchin tried to install Puccio in the post in 2010. On the day of the election, held in the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, Manchin stood at the back of the room with a clipboard, appearing to count votes.

Puccio won easily, securing at least 30 votes to Auvil’s seven.

“Larry had never been involved in Democratic state party campaigns, he had never campaigned for Democrats, he had never worked for Democrats, had never participated in any Democratic campaigns with the exception of Joe, and had no record of having ever been actively identified with the Democratic Party except for contributing to Joe’s campaigns,” Auvil said. “I thought it just made the party too much about one person.”