CHARLESTON, W.Va. — US Senator Jay Rockefeller, who came to West Virginia as a young man from one of the world’s richest families to work on antipoverty programs and remained in the state to build a political legacy, announced Friday he will not seek a sixth term.
The 75-year-old Democrat’s decision comes at a time when his popularity is threatened because of his support for President Obama, who is wildly unpopular in the state, and his willingness to challenge the powerful coal industry, which he said has used divisive, fear-mongering tactics to wrongly blame the federal government for its problems.
Surrounded by family and dozens of supporters amid a backdrop of photos from past campaigns and public appearances, Rockefeller said the peak moment of his career may have been threatening to keep the Senate in session over Christmas break if they didn’t pass the 1992 Coal Act. The measure preserved retirement benefits for miners and their families, and he credited the passing of it with averting a national coal strike.
‘‘In that fight, and so many others, I’ve been proud to stand with the working men and women of America. Miners, steelworkers, teachers, and nurses, and everyone who deserves a fair wage, a safe place to work and basic health care,’’ he said during a 20-minute speech that was more upbeat than somber.
Rockefeller pointed to his heart and said he made ‘‘entirely a personal decision . . . it is not a political decision and it has not been easy.’’
Rockefeller’s retirement was widely expected and puts the seat held by Democrats since 1958 in jeopardy for the party. Within weeks of November’s elections, Republican US Representative Shelley Moore Capito vowed to run for the seat in 2014, even if it meant going up against Rockefeller and his storied name. Other Republicans also have been eyeing the seat.
Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, has taken an initial step toward running for US Senate in 2014, adding intrigue to his political future and that of 88-year-old fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who currently holds the seat.
Booker filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday that allows him to raise money for a Senate campaign. The prolific social media user has not tweeted about it or made any public announcements about the filing, but it came as no surprise.
Booker, perhaps New Jersey’s highest-profile Democratic politician, last month turned down the party leaders who wanted to see him challenge incumbent Chris Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election. Instead, Booker said, he was looking at a run for the Senate next year. His interest puts pressure on Lautenberg, the oldest member of the Senate.
Lautenberg, who was treated for cancer three years ago, missed the Jan. 1 vote on the ‘‘fiscal cliff’’ legislation because of the flu but has never given any indication that he would like to retire.