Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 9, 2011

Special sessions loom to hash out boundaries

BLUEFIELD — The 2011 sessions of the West Virginia State Legislature and Virginia General Assembly have not even come to order yet, and lawmakers of both Virginias are already talking about the distinct possibility of special sessions in the spring to hammer-out new Senate and House boundaries.

The incredible growth surrounding the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., has been having an impact in northern Virginia for more than two decades and the bulge has reached West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where the population has grown by an estimated 75,000 according initial predictions from the U.S. Census Bureau. The state itself has only grown by about 50,000, but the growth in the Morgantown to Charles Town region is projected to offset persistent declining population in other parts of the state.

“We have to have 110,000 to 115,000 population for each senator,” Senator H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo said. Chafin is the senate’s majority leader, but that may change on Wednesday if Senator Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, is successful in his plan to get the senate rules suspended, and select new senate leadership while Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan is serving as acting governor.

“I don’t know what will happen in terms of redistricting,” Chafin told members of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph editorial board last week. “Last year, when (the late) Senator Don Caruth was minority party leader and I was leading the majority in the senate, we felt pretty secure that Mercer County would still have two senators. “The big problem is that we may have a majority leader from Berkeley County,” Chafin said of his colleague, Senator John Unger, D-Berekley, who Kessler announced as the new majority leader. “He wants another senator up there. That’s the change here.”

Virginia’s northeastern counties and cities have continued to flourish in terms of population growth, something that will have lawmakers of the General Assembly working overtime, but with a twist, according to State Senator Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell.

“We have a unique situation in that the Democrats are in the majority in the Senate, the Republicans are in the majority in the House and we have a Republican governor,” Puckett said during the editorial board session. “I think the leadership of both the House and the Senate in Virginia have demonstrated the ability to work together, but with a population of about 8 million in the state, that will translate to about 200,000 people to each senatorial district. I’m down to about 15,000 to 18,000 now.

“There is a danger that there will be one (senatorial district) going to the northeast,” Puckett said. “We just don’t want to see it come from out here in the Southwest. We’re struggling in some parts of the commonwealth, but when the balance of power shifts, it can have an impact.”

The two West Virginia Senators-elect — Mark Wills and Ron Miller, both Democrats — said they would like to see Mercer County remain intact in the 10th Senatorial District. “I personally favor having Mercer County as a hole,” Wills said. “The population is growing in the eastern panhandle. I’d like to see Mercer County stay as a whole.”

Miller said the people he has talked with in the Princeton area, “like one senator for Mercer County.” He said the district now includes two precincts in Fayette County, and noted that when he visited with voters there, they said it was the first time they had seen their senator. “I think we have to be careful,” he said.

Virginia State Delegate Anne B. Crockett-Stark, R-Wythe, predicted, “There’s going to be some shifting,” but said that is inevitable due to the loss of population in the rural counties. “We’ve all asked to be on the (redistricting) committee” in order to prevent a greater drain on the region’s representation.

“We don’t have the final numbers yet,” State Delegate James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell said. He added that it will be a topic that members of the General Assembly will discuss in Richmond. “I foresee us moving across county lines,” he said.

State Delegate Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, said that he wants to keep Wyoming County a two-delegate district. “I understand that Mercer County wants to be in one district. It’s going to be a fight because everyone is going to be holding on to what they have.”

State Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, said that redistricting is going to be a difficult process. “I think it’s going to be impossible to maintain things as they are,” he said. “I have asked the speaker to be part of the (redistricting) committee,” Moore said.

Delegate John Frazier, D-Mercer said he has talked to people who don’t even know that they’re not represented by delegates from Mercer County. “Historically, people have organized as counties,” Frazier said. “We are the second biggest district in southern West Virginia, but we’re split up into three districts.” Frazier said that he, too, has asked to serve on the redistricting committee.

Delegate-elect Joe Ellington, a Republican, said he wants to see the census data before stating a position. “I’m not in favor of gerrymandering,” he said. “I do like single delegate districts, but the bottom line comes from what the people in my district want.”

Delegate-elect Marty Gearheart, also a Republican, said the only way to ensure equal representation “is to establish 100 delegate districts,” he said. He added that the concept of single delegate districts would eliminate the confusion some voters have concerning who their representative is. “I think that’s the only way,” Gearheart said.

The Virginia and West Virginia representatives all predicted special sessions in the spring to iron out the new political boundaries in both states.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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