Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 7, 2010

Incoming 10th District senators may face tough redistricting battle

The death of State Senator Don Caruth last Saturday was deeply felt by those who knew of his sharp intellect, dignified bearing and sincere desire to help people.

The reality of his passing dwarfs political differences and makes us realize that good men and women are often very quietly in our midst, and too often are not appreciated.

A celebration of the senator’s life is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Princeton.

I had decided, before Caruth’s death, on writing a column about the current state senate race in the 10th District. Caruth’s seat is not up for election in this Tuesday’s primary.

The district Republican Executive Committee will present names to the governor later this month for an appointment to fill Caruth’s seat on an interim basis.

This November, there will be a special election, probably at the same time as the general election, to fill Caruth’s unexpired term, which will extend until January 2013.

Meanwhile, the other senate seat from the southeastern corner of the state is open this year. It is currently held by Republican Jesse Guills, a Lewisburg attorney, who decided not to seek election to a third term.

Because Caruth was from Mercer County, state law required that the seat that Guills holds was not eligible to be occupied by a Mercer countian. Since the filing deadline and the ballot process was completed before Caruth’s death, that requirement will remain, at least through the 2010 election cycle.

There are three Republicans vying in Tuesday’s primary election to be their party’s nominee for that seat. Ron Miller of Lewisburg is the only Democrat who has filed.

The Republicans are John R. Barnes of Lewisburg, Rick Romeo of White Sulphur Springs and Philip L. Stevens from the Summers County community of Grassy Meadows.

Even though the candidates do not live within the Daily Telegraph circulation area, a chunk of precincts that includes Bluefield, Princeton, Athens, Oakvale and all of Monroe County lies within District 10.

That puts this election, and the responsibility of each voter, into sharp focus.

Those who vote in that district should realize who is on the ballot. Choosing a state senator is an important event, even if the candidates are not from the immediate area.

It’s even more important this year, since the 34 senators who will take office in January will be the ones to re-draw district lines that will be in effect for the next 10 years.

Redistricting is required of every state in the union in the legislative session immediately following a census year. In West Virginia’s case, it is the responsibility of the State Senate to adjust the boundaries in accordance with the law.

That includes the House of Delegates districts, the state’s three Congressional districts — and their own senate districts.

Redistricting, almost 10 years ago, cut Mercer County up into two state senatorial districts. Again this year, the 10th District race has taken a back seat in the public’s consciousness to the “Fightin’ Sixth.”

Both in 2006 and this spring in the Sixth District, the incumbent Truman Chafin and challenger Greg “Hootie” Smith have launched repeated volleys at each other in trying to secure the Democratic nomination from that district. There is no Republican on the ballot.

The Sixth District starts at the westernmost edge of the state, near Huntington, and hugs the border counties until reaching the Mercer County line. All of McDowell and Mingo counties are in the district, plus the western sector of Mercer County and a streak through its center.

The configuration reminds me of a snake, with its tongue sticking out as far as the Mercer County town of Lerona. To others, remembering their high school history, it may look like the infamous “gerrymander” that supposedly has been rendered illegal.

The rule is that districts are to be “compact.” That means that they should be shaped more like a circle than a snake.

The partitioning of a county, especially the way it has been done to Mercer, weakens attempts at having a unified voice from that county and confuses its citizens. That could be made even worse when the lines are shifted around by the Senate in early 2011.

Political alliances will be made among powerful senators who don’t want incursions into their district that would disrupt their comfortable power bases.

Instead, if they need to expand their district to encompass the required minimum number of voters, they are likely to do so at the expense of districts viewed as being powerless to stop them.

It’s not good government, but it’s how politics works.

The two senators from the 10th District will both be new to the job, but they should be prepared to fight attempts to divide Mercer County further.

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and editorial cartoonist. Contact him at tbone@bdtonline.com.

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