For the last 20 years Jefferson County has been in the same congressional district as Charleston. Most people here do not understand why and many resent it.
The district (officially the "second" of West Virginia's three U.S. House of Representatives districts) borders the Ohio River (Mason County) in the west and Loudoun County, Va., in the east. The Charleston media, being extremely geographically challenged, says the district runs "from the Ohio to the Potomac." Actually, reaching the Potomac only gets one two thirds of the way across the district. I say the second congressional district runs "from the depths of the Ohio to the peaks of the Blue Ridge." West Virginia owns the entirety of the Ohio River from the mean water mark on the Ohio side, similar to Maryland's ownership of the Potomac. Since Ohio's state song, "Beautiful Ohio," was actually written about the river, I contend that Ohio's state song is actually about West Virginia. But I digress.
Our being lumped in with Charleston dates from the year (1992) our state last lost a congressional seat. We had six seats in the 1950s, dropping to five in 1962 and four in 1972.
Perhaps we can do major surgery on our congressional districts this year, perhaps not. Here are what I believe to be the most likely scenarios for congressional redistricting this year. Unlike legislative redistricting, in which there may be as much as a ten percent population spread from the most populous district to the least populous, there may be only a one percent spread from the biggest to the smallest among congressional districts.
The 2010 census shows that the first district grew at exactly the 2.5 percent pace of the state as a whole. Thus it already has a population within the acceptable numerical parameters. The second district is too big by about 30,000 people and the third is too small by about that number.
The simplest change we could make (with the numbers working) would be to move Mason County (population 28,000) from the second district to the third. The territory of the second would still go from the Ohio to the Blue Ridge, since it would retain Jackson County.
Many Eastern Panhandle folks would oppose this because we would still be in a district with Charleston. I'm not so sure that's a bad idea now, even though I was adamantly opposed to us being in the same district with Charleston 10 years ago.
What's changed? First, we've grown and they haven't. Second, losing Mason shifts the population even more toward us. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who lives in Charleston, is a popular incumbent through most of the district and I suspect she can run well in the future. But there's rampant speculation that she wants to run for either Governor or U.S. Senate soon. If she were to give up her seat in a new second district that has lost Mason County my money says her replacement would come from Martinsburg.
Political considerations are always important in redistricting. The advantage to Democrats (who have big majorities in both houses of the Legislature) of this change is that it helps out the lone remaining Democrat in our U.S. House delegation, 3rd District Congressman Nick Rahall (since Mason County is heavily Democratic).
There is a way to draw the districts that would put the Eastern Panhandle in with the Northern Panhandle. It connects the two panhandles with Wetzel, Monongalia (Morgantown), Preston, Taylor and Tucker counties. Our incumbent congressman would be the newly elected freshman Republican David McKinley, who lives in Wheeling.
A third choice would be to put most of the greater Eastern Panhandle with an area including Monongalia, Marion, Preston and a few smaller counties in the northern part of the state. This district would have no incumbent in it. The Northern Panhandle would be in the same district as Charleston. So the residences of two congressional representatives (Capito and McKinley) would be lumped into the same district. Since they are both Republicans such a plan would be open to charges of partisanship. Partisanship? On redistricting? Perish the thought.
Unlike state legislators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives don't have to reside in their districts - they only have to reside in the state. But voters tend to want their congressperson living in their district.
I don't like this plan because in order for it to pass numerical muster the greater eight-county Eastern Panhandle would not be able to be kept together. Hardy and Pendleton counties would be in the third (southernmost) district now represented by Rahall.
Much of the decision will, I believe, hinge on how much growth legislators collectively expect our state to have over the next ten years. In order to keep three congressional seats we will most likely have to grow by at least 150,000 people (presuming the nation grows by the same 9.7 percent it grew by from 2000 to 2010).
It's taken the last thirty years to grow by about 150,000, so if we keep that pace we'll lose a congressperson in 2020. If that's true, we should wait until 2020 to make a major change.
However, some projections for population growth as a result of development in the Marcellus gas shale say we'll make at least that 150,000 by 2020. If that's true, we may as well make the major change in our congressional districts now.
Finally, there are many federal court cases giving direction to states when they redistrict. One of them holds that protecting incumbents is a proper reason to draw districts certain ways. Another holds that any choice among plans that pass population muster must be in favor of the plan that makes the smallest change in the configuration of the districts unless there is a compelling reason.
What's a "compelling" reason? Why I s'pose that would be up to a federal judge.
We'll be having our usual two "town meetings" to report to the people of our delegate district on the recent regular session of the Legislature. The first will be Thursday, April 21 at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. The second will take place Monday, May 2 at the Bolivar Community Center, 60 Panama St. in Bolivar. Both meetings will start at 7:30 p.m. and conclude by 9 p.m. The public is invited to both.