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Legislative Redistricting Was Blatantly Partisan

December 7, 2011
By John Overington , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

On the day before Thanksgiving the final judgment on redistricting came down from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The score was Political Class - 1; People of West Virginia - 0. The court had played politics protecting the political insiders and elite by a 4-1 margin in a decision that will put the public at a disadvantage in controlling their destiny for the next decade.

Redistricting had started out with lofty goals and a fair process with the interests of the people to be paramount. Committee Chairman Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, espoused a process that would come from the local level up, from the counties to Charleston - not Charleston dictating down to the rest of the state. As someone who had gone through the two previous redistricting sessions, I was truly encouraged by this commitment.

However, the first ominous sign occurred when Speaker of the House Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, only appointed four of the designated 10 Republicans that the minority leader had selected. Instead Democrat Thompson chose the other six Republican members himself. Republicans, making up 35 members of the 100-member House, were entitled to pick at least 10 members of the 30-member Redistricting Committee.

As far back as I can remember the Republicans always selected their members on committees as the Democrats similarly selected their members. This is true whether it is state legislatures or in the U.S. Congress. Each side chooses their strongest team to represent them. But Thompson, in selecting the other six Republican delegates to be on the committee, did not allow the Republicans to choose their own team.

Can you imagine the outcry that would occur if the Pitt Panthers were able to select who could play on the WVU team in the Backyard Brawl? But this is exactly what Speaker Thompson did. With this unprecedented abuse of power, the Democrats showed that their commitment to fairness and the public interest was not a priority in the redistricting process.

Next came the pressure to avoid single-delegate districts. The state Chamber of Commerce reported that over three-fifths of the legislators support this good representation tool to give the voters more government accountability. The Chamber's 2010 legislative candidate questionnaire stated and then asked: "Research suggests elections would be cheaper and issues explained in more depth if citizens had a legislator who was simply responsible to the voters in his/her district. Do you support single-member legislative districts in West Virginia?"

Over 60 responded with "Yes." Imagine the political pressure applied on members to have them not honor their written commitment, especially when a plan with 100 single-delegate districts was proposed, including offering to amend the plan if boundaries for the 100 individual districts needed to be adjusted. Offers to break up several multi-member districts were also rejected. It will be interesting to see if the Chamber and other groups endorse and fund candidates who did not honor their commitment.

A broad cross-section of groups had endorsed the concept of greater accountability and participation through SDD, from Farm Bureau which was also concerned about loss of rural representation, to business groups, pro-family groups, taxpayers and everyday citizens. At the one public hearing held on the issue, none of the citizens and interested voters testifying spoke against the SDD issue. All favored it.

Then came the slicing and dicing of counties and precincts, communities and towns to provide political benefits to the Democrats in power. Accountability was lost or weakened when communities of interest were split up to avoid incumbents from having to run against each other; or when incumbents schemed to keep potential future opponents out of their districts; or when districts are strung out without any geographical continuity.

My sorrow on Thanksgiving Day was for the people of West Virginia. Lincoln's statement of government of the people, by the people and for the people had instead become Democrat government of, by and for the politicians.

Three different petitions challenging the House redistricting plan were filed before the Supreme Court. The House of Delegates plan is so badly gerrymandered that in many areas it resembles an abstract work of art (e.g., Districts 64 and 65). The House leadership behind it, Speaker Rick Thompson, Committee Chairman Brent Boggs and Vice Chairman Mike Caputo, should have hoped their plan would be rejected. Now this monstrosity is their legacy for the next 10 years. When voters ask, how could this have happened, where some districts look like a Rorschach inkblot test, the answer will be, it was their baby, Thompson/Boggs/Caputo's legacy, solidly on their shoulders, a legacy of arrogance, of self-serving politics.

I could not help but think of an unrestrained 15-year old juvenile doing this as a prank on the state because he had the power to do it and wanted to get his own way.

I suspect there will be snake oil salesmen trying to defend the product or saying that if the Republicans were in power they would be doing the same thing. However, on the Republican side many of us have advocated redistricting being done by an independent board that does not know where incumbents live. This is represented by our own HB 2833, similar to what Iowa does where the people are put ahead of the politicians. The focus would be geographical continuity, keeping communities together for the benefit of 1.8 million West Virginians, not for the self-serving agenda of incumbent legislators.

Ultimately, the people will have their say on whether government is really of, for and by the politicians or its 1.8 million people on Nov. 6, 2012. Thanksgiving Day is a day of personal thanksgiving for good friends, food and our many blessings. But this year it was a sad day for West Virginia.

Guest columnist John Overington is West Virginia's longest serving member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, with 27 years of service. He is a Republican from Berkeley County.

 
 

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