Political landscape bound for change

July 26, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The corporation of Ranson, W.Va., a Jefferson County town of fewer than 5,000 people, is currently divided among three House districts in the 100-seat chamber of the State Legislature.

The city of Martinsburg in Berkeley County, with a population of a little more than 17,000, is divided among two House and two Senate districts.

Charles Town, W.Va., is more than 10 miles away from Martinsburg, but parts of each municipality in Jefferson and Berkeley counties are in the same House district.

The political fracturing of Eastern Panhandle communities that came about after the 2000 U.S. census now is being targeted for elimination by the region's lawmakers who have drawn new district lines in advance of next week's special session on redistricting.

"We wanted to keep municipalities together," said Del. Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, of the proposal to place all of Charles Town and Ranson in the same House district.

Lawrence said that in addition to the municipalities, she tried to keep unincorporated communities, including Kearneysville and Shannondale, together in one House district as well, but admits that wasn't entirely possible.

About 80 percent of Shannondale was kept in one district and Kearneysville was kept intact in the redistricting plan she supports, Lawrence said.

Duke said a redistricting plan supported by the contingent of Republican delegates in Morgan and Berkeley counties proposes to place all of Martinsburg into one House district. The city's 2010 Census population fell just shy of the minimum needed to create a House district without adding county residents to the district, according to Berkeley County Del. Walter Duke.

As proposed, three House districts would divide eastern portions of Berkeley County and they would border a near equal portion of the Jefferson County line without crossing it, according to a draft map.

Duke acknowledged a "skinny" district proposed in northern Berkeley County, where Del. Larry Kump resides is noticeably less compact than the other three, but explained that it encompasses the remaining areas of flat land in the valley along U.S. 11.

The western portion of Berkeley County is proposed to be part of a new district that includes part of Morgan County and keeps the counties' more rural, less populated areas together, Duke said.  

In the 34-seat Senate, Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said he wouldn't tolerate any politically motivated gerrymandering in the Eastern Panhandle and all but declared an end to the nine-county configuration of the Senate's 15th district.

"We're not going to play any geography games ..." Unger said.

Unger expects the new 16th senate district that he represents to include roughly half of 104,169 Berkeley County residents counted in the 2010 census, along with all of Jefferson County's 53,498.

As a result, Unger said the 16th and 15th senate districts in Berkeley County could be divided north and south along Interstate 81 with all of the City of Martinsburg being kept in one senate district.  

Areas of the city that are west of I-81 are currently in the 15th district.

Because of the Eastern Panhandle's population growth, Unger said he expects the new 15th district will only be comprised of four or five counties — the western half of Berkeley County and all of Morgan, Hampshire and Mineral counties.

A part of Hardy County may also be added to the new 15th, which as proposed, would have two new senators, according to Unger.

"The numbers are what they are," Unger said.

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