January 26, 2011 15:50 Age: 3 yrs

Goodwin 99L Serves as U.S. Senator for 117 Days

By: Ginger Pyron

“... I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of this office on which I’m about to enter. So help me God.”

July 20, 2010. A YouTube video preserves the moment: Carte Goodwin 99L, right hand raised, takes the oath of office administered by Vice President Joe Biden as president of the Senate. Goodwin’s gaze is direct and open, and a hint of a smile suggests that he’s genuinely enjoying the cer­emony. Today, and for 117 days to come, Carte Goodwin is not just an attorney; he’s a senator.

Goodwin didn’t need a temp job, of course. He’s a partner in the family law firm of Goodwin & Goodwin and served in 2005—09 as chief counsel to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. But with the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Senate needed a West Virginian to occupy the vacant seat until the state’s voters could choose via a November special election someone to complete Byrd’s term. Manchin appointed Goodwin.

“The best advice I received after my appointment,” Goodwin recalls, “was to understand there is no such thing as a temporary senator. During my short term, I had an obligation to the people of West Virginia, to work hard every day on their behalf. I strived to do that.”

Goodwin took up his task full time, under circum­stances many politicians might envy. The newest and, at 36, the youngest senator made his political debut on the basis of merit and trust rather than hard-won votes. Spared the stress of fundraising and campaigning, Goodwin—a proponent of enhancing transparency via campaign disclo­sure laws—stepped smoothly into what could be called an ideal and highly responsible internship.

“Voting on issues that will make a difference in people’s lives has been the most meaningful thing I could ever do as a public servant,” Goodwin says. The difference-making began just minutes after the swearing-in: In his first senato­rial act, Goodwin cast the tipping vote on the long-stalled extension of expiring unemployment benefits.

“That legislation helped 20,000 West Virginians and millions more Americans through rough economic times,” Goodwin says. “It was the right thing to do.” He describes as “profoundly rewarding” a conversation with a grate­ful student who, unable to find work and struggling with outstanding student debt, said that Goodwin’s vote gave him the temporary financial relief he needed to get back on his feet.

Pleased that another of his votes confirmed the appoint­ment of Elena Kagan as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Goodwin would have liked the opportunity to help further mine safety legislation.

With the Nov. 2 election of Manchin to Byrd’s seat and his swearing in on Nov. 15, Goodwin has returned to pri­vate practice. But his not-so-tempo­rary practice as a senator—along with the role’s honorific title — will stay with him: “For me, the prac­tice of law will always include service, whether pro bono work, taking appointed cases for indigent clients, or volunteer­ing time. When you are holding public office, however, that commitment to serving the public must become your singular focus.”

Will Goodwin seek political office in the future? He hasn’t said. Asked, however, which of the words widely applied to his senatorial role—placeholder, caretaker, torchbearer, rising star, hero—best matches his view of that experience, he says, “The position was, above all, a privilege.” With a hint of a smile, he adds, “But ‘rising star’ does have a nicer ring than ‘placeholder.’”

Ginger Pyron is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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