Larry Puccio has been walking a political tightrope.
His path crosses influence, access, politics, loyalty, friendship and no small degree of personal finance against the backdrop of a West Virginia that is transitioning from longtime Democratic dominance toward Republican power.
He is a lobbyist, former state Democratic Party chairman and ex-chief of staff for Joe Manchin when he was governor. But this political season, Puccio pushed for the re-election of Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican who first won office as a Democrat.
Puccio’s efforts were very different from Manchin, who very publicly said Justice should be defeated.
On social media, Puccio’s social media status would be, “It’s complicated.”
But Puccio says the political position he occupies is relatively simple.
“It wasn’t hard for me because I’ve always been a person when I wake up in the morning, I’m going to support who I think is best for the state and best for our country,” Puccio said last week after being called on the telephone right as he sat down for a meal at Muriale’s, a much-loved Italian restaurant near his home in Marion County.
“If you look at the results of this election, major numbers of Democrats voted for Jim Justice, so I would have to think those felt it was fine.”
The next question was about what Manchin must think about that.
Manchin and Puccio helped the billionaire owner of The Greenbrier win the governor’s race as a Democrat in 2016. “We all made that decision to help Jim Justice,” Manchin said last week. “Larry went and really kind of ran the campaign.”
The twist came a half-year into Justice’s term when he declared himself a Republican onstage with President Trump at a Huntington rally.
Manchin weighed running for governor himself this time to try to knock off Justice but ultimately decided against it. Manchin’s criticism focused on Justice’s work habits: “He just won’t work. Doesn’t show up.”
The senator supported the Democratic candidate, Ben Salango. Justice’s response: “It’s grandstanding while running Ben Salango’s campaign and it is exactly what Joe Manchin has been since Day 1, a politician.”
So the politics got rough, but Puccio and Manchin say their longstanding relationship remains strong.
“Joe and I are very close. I think the world of Joe. I hope you print that. I’ve always been supportive of Joe Manchin. Joe knows me and I know Joe. Joe knows that I believe in my heart the right thing is to support Governor Justice,” Puccio said.
“We would never end a friendship over who we believe is the right person to support.”
Manchin, whose own phone call was patched through last week while he was out on the road, agreed. He says he told Puccio, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do buddy.”
“He’s my dear friend. So it can’t get personal. If you do that then it must not have been much of a friendship.”
Not everyone is buying all that.
“It was kind of ironic his best friend was against Justice,” said Roman Prezioso, a Democrat from Marion County who is retiring as minority leader of the state Senate.
Prezioso added, “I know those guys are friends. I’ve talked to Joe about it. I said, ‘Well how could Larry if he’s your best friend, how can he support your worst enemy?'”
Nick Casey is also a former Democratic Party chairman and Manchin ally. He was briefly Justice’s chief of staff until Justice switched parties and fired him.
“I look at it as, it is what it is,” Casey said on the telephone.
That’s all Casey would publicly say.
Puccio the West Virginia Democrat
Puccio has a long and prominent history with Manchin and with the Democratic Party in West Virginia.
Before politics, he was a commercial and residential real estate appraiser in Marion County, where Manchin grew up. Manchin said he’s known his longtime ally since Puccio was 13 or 14 years old.
As young men, “We both had to be salespeople in order to survive. Larry was selling cars and organs and I was selling furniture and rugs,” Manchin said.
During Manchin’s political life, Puccio has been there every step. “As long as I’ve been in politics, Larry’s been with me. He had those good instincts,” Manchin said.
“Larry sees very clearly. Larry can eliminate the political B.S. that goes on. Larry’s been able to go through that like a knife through butter.”
Puccio served as Manchin’s chief of staff when he was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. Manchin was elected governor in 2005 and Puccio came along, continuing as chief of staff.
When Manchin left the Governor’s Office for the U.S. Senate, Puccio succeeded Casey as chairman of the Democratic Party from 2010 to 2015. He stepped down to become chairman of Manchin’s Country Roads PAC.
During those years, Puccio built up a prominent lobbying role, establishing a relationship with Justice as a lobbyist for The Greenbrier, the historic resort owned by Justice’s family.
When Justice was up for re-election this year, Puccio was on board to help, despite the governor’s party switch.
He resigned from the Democratic Executive Committee after making a $2,800 donation to the Republican’s campaign during a fundraiser at the Wonder Bar in Clarksburg.
The Justice campaign said it was glad to have Puccio.
“Larry Puccio and Governor Justice have been close friends for many years, and Larry has decades of experience in politics and government in West Virginia,” stated Roman Stauffer, Justice’s campaign manager who is also active with the state GOP.
“He is a tremendous resource and provided advice, which helped guide our campaign to a record-setting victory on Election Day.”
Puccio described his role with the Justice campaign as informal.
“I volunteered time, as I did two years ago to Joe,” he said.
“When there was anything I put my two cents in. Many times my opinion was liked. Many times they thought my opinion wasn’t the right direction or wouldn’t work. I just have been around this for a long time, and I offered an opinion. When it can be used, that’s great. When it can’t be, I appreciate that too.”
Manchin acknowledged, “I wish he hadn’t helped Jim as much as he did.”
Prezioso suspects the role was central to the re-election effort.
“He ran the campaign. He ran the Justice campaign. He lobbies for The Greenbrier. That’s all fact,” Prezioso said. “Justice has made him a lot of money. He had an allegiance.”
Late this past election cycle, Puccio briefly took a public role, appearing on MetroNews’ “Talkline” to assess Justice’s polling margin. “We are pleased. We are excited,” he said on statewide radio. “More important than the big lead is the confidence people have in the governor, and it’s high.”
That prompted a rebuke from the current Democratic Party chairwoman, Belinda Biafore, Puccio’s successor as party chief and another Marion County native. Right after Puccio’s radio appearance, Biafore had a statement emailed to reporters.
She said, “I am disappointed in former West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Larry Puccio for being a part of Governor Jim Justice’s campaign team. It’s disheartening for Democrats in West Virginia who worked alongside Mr. Puccio for so long to see him be a spokesperson for Jim Justice who turned his back on them.”
Puccio said he still considers himself a Democrat.
“I’ve always been a moderate. I’m registered Democrat. I’ve always been a moderate Democrat. I believe in governing from the middle as much as possible,” he said.
“I consider myself — and I hope you print this — always doing in my heart what I believe is the right thing for West Virginia. More than trying to make a decision when I wake up to think like a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. I try to make good decisions for West Virginia.”
State Senator Paul Hardesty, a longtime Democrat from Logan, said he made a similar decision. Hardesty, who opted to leave the Senate this year, served as vice chairman of the Justice campaign’s finance committee.
“I got scrutinized for that myself,” said Hardesty, a former lobbyist who also represented Justice properties.
“Governor Justice was a friend. Just because he switched parties don’t mean I’m going to stop being his friend. I think Larry felt the same way.”
Puccio’s value to the Justice campaign is clear, Hardesty said. “I think he’s one of the most brilliant political minds and tacticians that I’ve ever been around.”
Prezioso, who said he hasn’t spoken with Puccio for months, doubts Puccio will remain involved with the Democratic Party’s organization.
“I don’t think he’ll be involved with the Democratic Party any more. Once you make a statement like that, you’re all in. I think he’s all in,” Prezioso said.
“You probably can’t blame the guy. He’s got the governor’s ear.”
Larry Puccio, lobbyist
More than one person interviewed for this story said Puccio was open about having financial incentives to maintain his relationship with Justice.
Manchin said Puccio explained to him, “Joe if you’re not going to run in 2020 then I’m going to be with Jim because we started there. And he says, ‘I do lobbying; I work for him.'”
Puccio’s lobbying activity has been active, prominent and, by all appearances, lucrative.
He does lobby for The Greenbrier, as well as Southern Coal Corp., part of the Justice family’s coal holdings.
He lobbies for FirstEnergy, the power company with a significant presence in West Virginia homes and politics. FirstEnergy associates donated thousands of dollars to Justice’s re-election campaign. Salango contended that merited a longer look after federal allegations of influence buying emerged in neighboring Ohio.
He represented Major League Baseball and the NBA when West Virginia allowed and regulated sports betting, although he doesn’t list those accounts any more.
Puccio lobbies for Thompson Construction, which received most of the contract work to provide homes to state residents who lost their homes in a devastating 2016 flood. The state has received criticism over the pace of the effort, but state records show Thompson bringing in $24.5 million this year and $18.9 million last year.
He lobbies for Frontier Communications, which continues to receive scrutiny over broadband speed, reliability and reach in a state that sorely needs it.
He lobbies for UnitedHealthcare, a major insurer in West Virginia.
And he did lobby for Google but then filed a termination notice this past May 15, just a few months before the state announced an $8 million contract with Google Cloud for digital productivity services for 22,000 executive branch workers. Microsoft called foul last week because it just signed a renewed contract for similar services a few months ago.
Those contracts, the relationships and the influence are worth a lot. By riding the political winner, a lobbyist can ensure open doors and connected phone calls.
Prezioso bluntly suggested access was the main factor in supporting the sitting governor.
“I guess Larry puts money before friendship,” he said.
Past and future Puccio
Mike Caputo, a passionate Democrat and union mine worker from Marion County, has known Puccio since the 1970s. Puccio sang lead in a band, “Sassy,” with Caputo’s brother as the drummer.
“Larry had the voice of an angel, I kid you not,” Caputo said.
Caputo was a state delegate representing Marion County for years. When he ran for Senate this year, narrowly winning in a Republican wave, Puccio guided his campaign.
“Larry was very helpful to me, quite frankly. He helped me with messaging and helped me craft our campaign,” said Caputo, who was among Puccio’s small group at Muriale’s last week. (He had a chopped salad.)
“We talked about my campaign. We didn’t talk about other campaigns. We didn’t talk about the governor’s.”
Just the same, Caputo wished Puccio’s political advice was exclusive to Democrats. He noted, though, that the only Republican that Puccio has pushed for is Justice.
Caputo said he doesn’t blame Puccio for going to bat for the governor.
“I guess if you look back through his history, when else has he been in the corner of a Republican other than this time?” Caputo asked. “For most of his career, he has supported Democrats. This one time, he switched to help a Republican.”
Asked last week whether he’ll continue working for Justice as the governor heads into his second term, Puccio left it open. He said they haven’t had that conversation yet.
“I continue to communicate with the governor often and talk with him. I think it will be soon that he will explain to me the direction he’d like to go and what he’d like to accomplish,” Puccio said. “We have not had that conversation at this point, I can tell you.”
Somehow, he said, he’d like to continue supporting both Justice and Manchin.
“They really want to do great things. There’s a lot of people in West Virginia who want to do great things. I support any and all of them,” Puccio said.
“We can make a better West Virginia.”
Manchin said if it ever comes down to it, Puccio is with him.
“One thousand percent,” Manchin said. “Larry and I will always be together.”