Why you should care
Because she’s at ground zero for addiction.
West Virginia cast a higher percentage of its votes for Donald Trump (68.6 percent) than any other state in the union in 2016. It also had a higher proportion of drug overdose deaths (52 per 100,000 people) than any other state — for the seventh year running. It’s Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s job to remind Trump of those numbers, as she carves a unique path through Washington that’s as deep and winding as the Mountain State’s hollows.
Capito has the president’s ear on energy issues — coal is still king in West Virginia, and Trump is all for it — and she’s trying to make sure Washington attacks the opioid crisis with the same gusto. She was clearly distressed by the lack of follow-through from his administration’s opioid commission.
I’m working the coal angle, as I should.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito
“I don’t think we’ve gotten what we thought we were going to get in terms of a big bang,” Capito said in her Capitol Hill office earlier this month, before the White House’s renewed opioid push. “But we’re in for the long haul.” She’s glad Trump is focusing on prevention and enforcement, but she’s eager for more attention and resources for “treatment, recovery, transition.” As Republicans on Capitol Hill navigate the potential and the frustrations of the Trump era in their own ways, Capito’s careful criticisms display her delicate balancing act — between a president roaringly popular with her base, and a state in need.
Capito, 64, is a distance runner whose early morning jogs take her by the Lincoln Memorial. She has learned to take the long view in Congress too, by patiently and methodically keeping her eyes fixed on her goals. A marathoner’s mindset is helpful in the slow-paced Senate, and Capito is working behind the scenes to build bipartisan coalitions that party leaders couldn’t avoid if they wanted to, on everything from opioids to childhood cancer to attracting more utility workers.
While her state is bright red now, West Virginia’s first-ever female U.S. senator — and first Republican in 56 years — knows well its blue roots. Capito’s 14 years in the U.S. House and four years in the state legislature taught her bipartisanship. “I grew up in the legislature very much in the minority,” Capito says. “If you want to get anything done, you’ve got to move with the majority.”
It runs in the family. Her father, Arch Moore, served as a Republican governor and congressman in that deep blue territory. “She watched her dad, who was a master politician and who understood how to help people,” says Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “Her dad reached out to more Democrats, and more Democrats supported him than Republicans because there were just that many more of them.”
As a young woman, Capito was named West Virginia’s Cherry Blossom Princess, an annual development program for up-and-coming female leaders from each state. She studied zoology at Duke University — perhaps foreshadowing a career dealing with the political herds on Capitol Hill — before pursuing a master’s in education and working as a counselor at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University).
Since winning her first Senate term in 2014, Capito has shown a willingness to cross party leaders at times — though in the end she usually sides with Republicans on major items. She threatened to vote against a proposed Obamacare repeal last year because of its impact on Medicaid — including opioid treatment funds — but ended up supporting the bill when it fell short by a vote on the Senate floor. On the powerful Appropriations Committee, Capito has steered money to economic development and childhood education in her state and earned praise from senior senators such as Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who called her “very smart, very alert, savvy.”
On the Environment and Public Works Committee, Capito is a tireless advocate for coal, which many Democrats see as short-sighted. “They have a nostalgia for a time that is not going to come back," says Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “But for the poor, the workers of coal-burning cities and towns, the past is just a memory, and the future is a hard reality.” Capito pushes back by saying that her constituents are more realistic about the state’s economic future than outsiders think. “I’m working the coal angle, as I should,” Capito says. “I don’t think people inherently in West Virginia think it’s going to come back to where it was, and I don’t think I say that. I do say [coal is] bouncing back and we have more jobs.”
While backing coal extraction is standard Republican fare, supporting unions is not. And yet Capito says she’s glad that teachers in her state recently won a 5 percent pay raise with a strike. The funds, she says, will help the state retain talented teachers who can help the next generation succeed inside or outside the coal mines. “The intensity surprised me,” Capito says of the protests, adding that teachers “did a masterful job” of making people realize the value they bring to the classroom — “and how they’ve been undervalued.”
Last week, Capito cheered Trump’s new opioid plan as a “significant step forward” — it included promises to expand states’ access to medication-assisted treatment and to improve Medicaid coverage of inpatient drug treatment — but she did not back Trump’s call for the death penalty for drug dealers. And she declined to back Trump’s plan to arm teachers in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.
She also found herself banging her head against the wall in the middle of tense negotiations on a massive $1.3 trillion annual spending bill. Sometimes, when obstinance reigns, she half-jokingly tells her appropriations colleagues: “Well, I’m the middle child. So I always have to negotiate everything.”