Eastern Panhandle a New Power

For the past few years, perceptive political analysts have suggested West Virginians should prepare ourselves for the new reality of a much more powerful Eastern Panhandle. They were right.

During the past few weeks, the Eastern Panhandle’s new clout has been on display, never so much so as during the past 10 days or so.

With a population boom in Berkeley, Jefferson and, to a lesser extent Morgan and Hampshire counties, the EP has gained state legislators – and more power in deciding questions such as what, until Friday, had been the big one: congressional redistricting. As a story in today’s newspaper and an editorial on this page explain, the necessity for haste in discussing congressional districts was eliminated by a U.S. Supreme Court order.

For several days, it was at the top of legislators’ agendas, however.

Some EP local government officials don’t like being in the 2nd Congressional District, served by U.S. Rep. Shelley Capito, a Republican. They were upset when the Legislature last year adopted a redistricting plan, in response to population shifts shown by the 2010 Census, that left them in that district.

Jefferson County commissioners were a key party in a lawsuit filed to overturn the plan. Earlier this month, two federal judges on a three-judge panel agreed and ordered new districts be devised. It was that order the high court stayed on Friday.

The judges’ primary point involved equal populations. Under the plan adopted last year, the 1st District (Rep. David McKinley, a Republican) has 615,991 residents, the 2nd has 620,862 people and the 3rd (Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat) has 616,141. That represents miniscule differences in population, especially considering the Legislature managed to accomplish redistricting by changing just one thing: Mason County was moved out of the 2nd District and into the 3rd to make those regions’ populations closer to equal.

But the two judges – whose motives seem to involve more than just equalizing the districts’ populations – ordered an even more equal formula.

The logical thing for lawmakers to have done would have been, as state Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, has suggested, to simply shift a few precincts to make the districts’ populations nearly equal, then leave everything else as it was less than a month ago.

That isn’t what’s happening in Charleston, however. Boley’s plan doesn’t seem to have attracted a lot of support. Instead, two other proposals have been discussed.

One, which seems to be gaining favor, is by state Sen. John Unger, a Democrat. Another at which lawmakers are looking is by state Sen. Herb Snyder, also a Democrat.

Unger is from Berkeley County. Snyder is from Jefferson County.

Any more questions about the EP’s new clout?

Why do Unger and Snyder – and, presumably, other politicians in the EP – like the new district maps they have proposed?

Unger’s would chop some Ohio Valley counties out of the 1st District and extend it east to include the EP. Snyder’s would reorient the 1st District to extend from the Northern Panhandle south to Kanawha County.

What the two plans have in common is they both place the EP and Kanawha County, the center of political power in West Virginia, in different districts. That would give the EP an opportunity to politically dominate its new district.

The EP is, by far, the fastest growing economy and population center in the state. Four EP counties (Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan and Hampshire) now contain 180,172 residents – about one-tenth of the state’s population. Together, they approach Kanawha County’s 193,064 residents. By 2020, expect the EP to surpass the capital county.

Whether a new redistricting plan is adopted later this year or not, the EP’s new power remains a factor in state politics.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at: Myer@theintelligencer.net.