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Congressional redistricting plan introduced produces grumbling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The first of at least three proposals for congressional redistricting was introduced in the state Senate on Monday -- prompting considerable consternation among some senators.

The proposal (SB199), sponsored by Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and others, goes to the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, which is chaired by Unger.

However, Unger said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, had asked that the committee not take up the bill immediately.

"The president has asked me to hold off until a later date," Unger said. "We want to make sure the public has time to look at it, and other plans that may be presented."

Unger's plan would link the Northern and Eastern Panhandles via north-central West Virginia. Some Senate Democrats complained Monday that the addition of the Eastern Panhandle to the 1st Congressional District would create a "safe" district for Republican U.S. Rep. David McKinley.

The 3rd District, a Democratic stronghold in Southern West Virginia, would be relatively unchanged in Unger's plan, except for the addition of most of Randolph County.

When a federal appeals court threw out the state's original attempt at congressional redistricting last month, Unger said, the judges said the population in the three congressional districts wasn't equal enough, and the districts weren't compact enough.

Unger said his proposal answers those issues. He noted that in his proposed 2nd District, a members of Congress could drive up Interstate 79 from Kanawha County to Harrison County, then over to Wood County on U.S. 50, and back to Kanawha County on Interstate 77.

"You could probably cover the entire district and still be home for dinner," Unger said.

He said that if the Legislature is going to act, it needs to do so quickly, or risk having a redistricting plan imposed by the federal court. He said he believes it's unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a stay on the lower court order.

"The state's whole defense is, we don't have time to do it, and that's false," he said of the motion for a stay.

Two additional redistricting plans are expected to be introduced today, including a plan by Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, that tweaks the current congressional districts, moving a portion of Lewis County into the 1st, and a portion of Braxton County into the 3rd.

"It shows how easy it is to fix it," Boley said, suggesting the court struck down the congressional plan primarily because of population variances between the three districts.

"They're not talking about compactness in that opinion," she said.

Unger disagreed, saying the federal judges will not sign off on any plan that continues to have the 2nd District stretching from the Eastern Panhandle to the Ohio River.

"Just tweaking it ... and calling it a day will only end up taking us back to court," he said.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, is also expected to introduce a variation of a plan he proposed last summer.

That plan would link the Eastern Panhandle with much of north-central and central West Virginia, while creating a district stretching from Kanawha County through the Northern Panhandle.

Unlike the other proposals, that plan would put McKinley in the same district as another Republican incumbent, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.

Regardless of timelines imposed by the courts, Unger said if the Legislature is going to pass a redistricting bill, it needs to have it enacted prior to Jan. 28, the deadline for candidates to file for office.

"We do have a time constraint, but it's not impossible for us to pass something," he said.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 


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