Early last week came the bitter news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against Jefferson County in its lawsuit over congressional redistricting. I’ve talked with many residents of our county who disagree with the ruling and few who like it. Sentiment ranges from disbelief to anger. I’m not a lawyer and I leave it to lawyers to analyze the legal aspects of the ruling. But there are political undercurrents and ramifications.
West Virginia’s present three congressional districts were carved out in 1991, after the decennial census of 1990 reduced our state’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives from four to three. The incumbent congressmen at the time, all Democrats, jockeyed for position before the Legislature to keep their seats. Harley O. Staggers, Jr., who represented the Eastern Panhandle and a few counties to the west, lost the game of political musical chairs.
The three resulting districts were one in the north, the first; one in the south, the third; and a second district stretching from Mason and Jackson Counties on the Ohio River through Charleston to and including Jefferson County. It was a thin ribbon that I said at the time snaked “from the depths of the Ohio to the peaks of the Blue Ridge.” (West Virginia owns the Ohio River.) It made no sense then and it makes no sense now.
In 2001, after the 2000 census showed that the second district needed to give territory to the other two (the second had grown in population while the other two had lost) I tried mightily to get major change, so that the Eastern Panhandle would not be in the same district as Charleston. The Legislature had no interest. After the 2010 census showed that the second district’s territory needed to be shrunk even further our own State Sen. Herb Snyder led a similar fight in 2011. He made more progress than I had but the Legislature still made only the minimal change necessary.
Why no success either time in the Legislature? Mostly inertia. Legislators don’t want to deal with redistricting unless they have to. But there are other factors.
While we in the Eastern Panhandle don’t want to be in the same district as Charleston, nobody else does either. We can argue ‘til the cows come home that it makes less sense for us to be in the state capital’s district than counties closer to it but folks who aren’t in that district and don’t want to be aren’t going to listen. And our current Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito has many friends who are Democrats, particularly in her home town of Charleston.She’s been successful under the current district’s configuration and obviously likes it.
What about the future? The court case is not yet over. The U.S. Supreme Court, while overruling the district court decision that the current West Virginia districts violate the Constitution’s requirement that they be equal in population, observed that the district court did not address one Jefferson County contention; the West Virginia Constitution says districts must be compact. Is the second district “compact?” We’ll see.
Also, rumors abound that Congresswoman Capito intends to run in 2014 for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Jay Rockefeller. If this happens, perhaps her supporters might not mind the congressional districts being redrawn by the Legislature in 2013. The Legislature may redraw districts any time it’s in regular session — it doesn’t have to wait 10 years.
And an ominous prospect looms. Most demographers believe West Virginia will lose another seat in Congress after the 2020 Census — we came close this time. If so, no matter how the line is to be drawn we’d be freed from Charleston.
Nobody should blame either Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or Secretary of State Natalie Tennant for our predicament. They officially defended the Legislature’s action before the court because it’s their responsibility to do so.
I congratulate seven people involved in this lawsuit for their courage and two of them also for their skill. Jefferson County’s five commissioners — Dale Manuel, Frances Morgan, Patsy Noland, Lyn Widmyer and Walt Pellish — stood strongly for our county’s interest. And their two lawyers, Stephen Skinner and David Hammer, won the case at the trial court when nobody in Charleston gave them a chance.
— John Doyle represents the 57th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates. He will retire at the end of the year.