To the victors go the spoils, and for the legislative supermajorities in 2021, one of those spoils will be complete control of redistricting.
That means no opportunity to repeal the 2018 law requiring the House of Delegates to be fragmented into 100 single-member districts beginning with redistricting next year.
I’m convinced the rise of single-member districts in the House, which currently account for 47 of the 100 seats, has been a major contributor to the rise of Republican influence in that body.
When I arrived on the Statehouse scene not so many years ago, multi-member districts were the “in” thing, with the House having only 13 single-member districts.
At the time, Kanawha County was one big 12-member district. Gazette Editor Don Marsh was an outspoken advocate for keeping it that way going into the 1991 redistricting.
For one, Marsh said, multi-member districts increase the likelihood of electing women and people of color. Marsh theorized that while the typical voter might not cast his or her first or second vote for a female or minority candidate, votes three, four or five might well go their way.
Indeed, for my first session in 1990, 10 of the 12 Kanawha County delegates were women.
When the House convenes in 2021 for what hopefully will be my last legislative session as a reporter, the Kanawha delegation will have but two female members, incoming Democrat Kayla Young and Republican Diana Graves.
The big criticism of the multi-member district was that most of the delegates were from the Charleston area, something Marsh dismissed as both desirable and to be expected: The most talented, educated and able people — and thus, the best-qualified legislators — tend to be attracted to the social, cultural and economic opportunities that cities offer.
Marsh noted that the 12-member delegation, made up of eight Democrats and four Republicans at a time when the House was 74% Democrat, ran the gamut from staunch liberal David Grubb to ultra-conservative Ann Calvert.
In his brilliant way with words, Marsh wrote: “Bonnie Brown is a feminist. Charlotte Lane is a doctrinaire Republican. Sharon Spencer is a pro-union Democrat. Ruth Goldsmith looks like Aunt Bee and votes like Orrin Hatch. The delegation could hardly be more diverse.”
(History shows that the legislatures of that era were certainly effective: Legislators reorganized state government, passed the Ethics Act, embarked on an unprecedented era of school construction and renovation, created the Rainy Day Fund and came up with funding sources to shore up nearly bankrupt public employees’ and teachers’ pension funds, unemployment compensation and the PEIA. And that’s after inheriting massive, multi-hundred-million-dollar deficits from Arch A. Moore Jr.)
Marsh argued that breaking the county (and, ultimately, the state) into single-member districts would not improve representation but would create a “confederacy of areas.”
However, despite Marsh’s eloquence, a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans set out to break up the Kanawha delegation and did so in a brilliantly devious way.
The Charleston flats — East End, downtown, West Side — have been deep blue for eons. That area went strongly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and while I haven’t seen a precinct-level breakdown of the 2020 election, walking around the East End prior to the election, I noted a 25-to-1 ratio of Biden to Trump yard signs.
The decision was made to seal off the near-exclusively Democratic area in one district, under the pretense of creating a “minority influence district.” (Never mind that the district was 69% white at the time and has been represented by a member of a minority for only four years of its 28-year history.)
It’s notable that Republicans on the House Redistricting Committee voted unanimously for the plan, which broke up Kanawha County into that single-member district, a seven-member district and a four-member district.
Ultimately, the plan moved the House from 13 to 33 single-member districts. Currently, the number of single-member districts sits at 47.
I’ll set aside the 2020 election as an anomaly, not a trend, as the cult of personality of Donald Trump brought out Kool-Aid-drinking supporters in droves to make one last stand for Dear Leader and as a result, lifted up down-ballot Republicans.
The fealty to Trump is such that leading Republicans, including our U.S. senator and our governor, as of my Friday deadline cannot bring themselves to publicly state the obvious, that Trump lost the presidential election, and whether you measure by popular vote or Electoral College, lost it bigly.
Looking at the current composition of the House, of the nine multi-member districts, three are all-Democrat, two are all-Republican and four have a mix of D and R.
Among the 11 two-member districts, four are all-Democrat, three are all-Republican and four are mixed.
However, when you get to the 47 single-member districts, the ratio flips in a big way: 35 districts are Republican, 12 are Democrat.
Those districts are represented by 42 men and five women.
As we proceed with 2021 redistricting, we’ll need to keep a weather eye out for gerrymandering shenanigans by the Republican supermajority to further strengthen their control of the House. Would not surprise me, for instance, to see various sections of Morgantown ending up in three or four different delegate districts to dilute the “D” vote.
(Since Republicans have controlled the Legislature, we’ve had two budget impasses; two statewide teachers’ walkouts; a politically driven attempt to impeach the entire Supreme Court, along with such undesirable national publicity as a delegate who made anti-gay slurs in committee; and a GOP Day at the Legislature featuring an anti-Islamic display.)
As the House has increased in numbers of single-member districts, it has become more rural-centric and more anti-city, and our cities are shrinking at a time when the Legislature should be doing everything possible to make them thrive and grow, making them attractive to the young, college-educated professionals that the state so desperately needs and seems helpless to attract.
You be the judge, but to my mind, over the years, Don Marsh was wrong about only one thing: He didn’t think “Raising Arizona” was funny.
In my last column, I noted that when Democrats have had supermajorities in the Legislature, they haven’t functioned monolithically but have broken into factions, something I said I suspect we’ll see with the Republican supermajorities.
Signs of fracturing surfaced while I was on staycation, with elements of the GOP and those of far-right conservative bent strenuously objecting to Gov. Jim Justice’s mandate to wear masks at all times in public buildings.
The slight modification of a July 6 executive order, eliminating an exception for mask-wearing if it is possible to maintain social distancing, was treated by some constituents as if Justice, in his words, was acting like a communist or a dictator who is also coming to take their guns.
The most virulent reaction came from former-Republican-turned-independent Delegate Marshall Wilson (how deplorable must one be to have the GOP ask you to remove yourself from the party). Wilson not only called for the Legislature to call itself into special session to repeal Justice’s COVID-19 executive orders, he called for Justice to be impeached.
Amazingly, many of the mask opponents want Justice to emulate South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has adamantly refused to require mask-wearing or social distancing and allowed super-spreader events as the Sturgis biker rally to take place.
South Dakota, with the third-highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the world, about three times higher than West Virginia? South Dakota, a state with half the population of West Virginia that has nearly twice as many COVID-19 cases?
As Justice would say, are you kidding me?
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who continues post-election to use social media as a bullhorn to Trumpers, also got in the act, effectively saying there will be no penalties during his watch for flouting Justice’s mask requirement.
While state Code says the attorney general is counsel for the state, including the governor, the ongoing rift between Morrisey and Justice has sent Justice scurrying to private counsel to represent him on multiple state matters, at significant taxpayer expense.
Keep fracturing, boys. For the next two years, inertia might be our best hope.
Finally, it’s probably a sign of the times that I got an email from a reader irate about activists petitioning to have the Stonewall Jackson statue removed from the Capitol grounds. The reader wrote, “We have a black statue on our Capitol grounds, I’m going out to get signatures to get it REMOVED,” referring to the Booker T. Washington bust located north of the West Wing.
The reader quickly sent a second email, saying he isn’t serious about removing the bust, saying Washington was “a great educator” and his bust “should be left alone for everyone to view it so its history won’t be forgotten.”
Which, of course, is a false equivalency, implying that Jackson’s statue should remain because he was an historic figure, ignoring that he was also a slave owner and a traitor to the United States.
Gov. Justice and Arts, Culture and History Curator Randall Reid-Smith have hardly been profiles in courage on the issue, having now twice postponed Capitol Building Commission meetings to avoid discussing the matter.
I suspect they’ll continue to play hot potato until the Legislature returns in hopes the Republican supermajorities will pass the oft-introduced “Monuments and Memorials Protection Act,” which would make it illegal to remove, relocate or alter any statues, monuments or memorials on public grounds.