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West Virginia's governor to Virginia counties: Join us

From left: Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University, and Jim Justice, Governor of West Virginia, answer questions at a press conference at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 in Martinsburg, W.Va. (Ron Agnir/The Journal via AP)

By JULIE ZAUZMER The Washington Post

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — As Virginia’s new Democratic majority ushers through a raft of liberal proposals on issues including gun control and abortion, West Virginia’s governor is making an unusual proposal to disgruntled Virginians: Break away.

Gov. Jim Justice (R) on Jan. 28 endorsed a plan for conservatives unhappy with the new direction of their state legislature to demand ballot referendums in their cities and counties this November, through which they could express their desire for their county to leave Virginia and join West Virginia instead.

West Virginia was formed when a set of counties did just that during the Civil War, leaving Virginia after it left the Union. Those counties seceded from the secessionist state, forming the new U.S. state of West Virginia.

“West Virginia is an incredible state. … We’ve got great people. We’ve got four incredible seasons,” Justice said in his speech wooing wayward Virginians. “We’re a loving, good people. Faith-based people. People that really know the difference between right and wrong. … If you’re not truly happy where you are, we stand with open arms to take you from Virginia.”

University of Virginia constitutional law professor Richard C. Schragger said a county may leave one state and join another with the majority vote of both states’ legislatures and the U.S. Congress, according to the U.S. Constitution. Schragger predicted that while West Virginia’s legislature might welcome Justice’s proposal, Virginia’s remaining Republican lawmakers would be loath to let conservative counties break away. Virginia’s Democrats would probably oppose the secession also, he said, “as a matter of pride and … a sense of the historic integrity of the state.”

Schragger said the proposal, while constitutional, was unimaginable: “Not in a million years.”

Justice was accompanied during his speech by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a large evangelical college in Lynchburg, Va., who laid out details of the plan while Justice spoke in broad strokes about West Virginia’s welcome to all. Even though Lynchburg is about 100 miles from the West Virginia border, Falwell said he would vote for the city to leave Virginia for the purpose of “escaping the barbaric, totalitarian and corrupt Democratic regime in Richmond.”

“The threat from the radical left is real and spreading across the country. We have a rare opportunity to make history in our time by pushing back against tyranny,” Falwell said. He recalled that Kentucky was once part of Virginia and became its own state shortly after the American Revolution, and that West Virginia broke away from Virginia. “I hope history will also record, one day, how Virginia divided once again in our day.”

Falwell also proposed a more extreme alternative, which he said he has floated to “high-level folks in the federal government” but knows is not feasible: disenfranchising an enormous swath of Northern Virginia, by making any area where federal workers or contractors reside part of the District instead of Virginia.

The federal district with no vote in Congress or a state legislature, he said, should include “10 times” more suburban area than just Alexandria and Arlington — which a Republican state legislator recently proposed should be part of the District rather than vote in Virginia, although the jurisdictions form a significant part of Virginia’s tax base. “You have people intended by the founders to be in a federal district and not voting in any state, because they had a conflict of interest, voting in Virginia. That’s really what’s taken control of Virginia over from its residents,” Falwell said.

Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), the first African American and first woman to hold that position, called Falwell’s suggestion “laughable.”

“Individuals in Alexandria and Arlington are just as Virginian,” she wrote in an email, as those in rural counties like Loudoun, Frederick and Clarke. “So are hard-working members of our Federal Government that live in Virginia. Suggestions of giving up parts of our Commonwealth are laughable — our diversity is our strength.”

Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D), whose district includes Falls Church and parts of Alexandria and Fairfax County, reacted by saying, essentially, good riddance.

“Just when you think you have heard it all,” Saslaw said in a text message. “I am sure there are a fair amount of people who would be delighted with Falwell moving to West Virginia.”

Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.