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Opinion: Tom Crouser — Legislators shouldn’t choose their voters

From The Charleston Gazette-Mail, Daily Mail page:

There’s another reason legislators shouldn’t choose their voters during redistricting that goes beyond the obvious reason they are choosing their own voters.

It pits delegate against delegate in a War of the Roses resulting in retaliatory settling of scores. It also explains Kanawha County’s wacky delegate districts.

Strap in — I’m fixin’ to say something good about a Democrat.

The House was redistricting in 2011 based on the 2010 census. Then-House Speaker Rick Thompson stonewalled a public process in favor of allowing each delegate, whether Democrat or Republican, to decide not only their district’s boundary, but its makeup: single-member or multiple. It was only when members couldn’t agree that leadership became involved.

I first encountered one of my delegates, a young Doug Skaff, at the courthouse during a Senate-sponsored hearing on redistricting. I spoke in favor of single-member districts and he stood for the status quo.

At some point, I challenged him to an arm-wrestling debate. That didn’t happen but it did open a brief private dialogue. I said, “Yeah, huh” and he said, “Nuh uh.” Nevertheless, I was impressed with his intellectual honesty.

At that time, Kanawha County had three districts. There was the seven-member 30th (St. Albans to Charleston through the upper Kanawha Valley), the single member 31st (downtown Charleston) and the three-member 32nd (Cross Lanes, Sissonville and up Elk).

The courthouse club strongly favored the status quo, as it felt the big bloc of Democratic votes was best under the “delegates represent counties” theory. They don’t. Delegates represent people in the districts that elect them.

The big 30th was wearing a target. You see, not only was it unwieldly with constituents often not knowing their delegates, it was also the largest-member district in the nation. Yes, the nation.

Now, under the speaker’s plan of lead from behind, any change in any district had to come from within a delegation.

Fortunately for breakup enthusiasts, Eric Nelson Jr. spent a lot of money and was elected as the first Republican in the solidly Democratic 30th district in a gazillion years. So, he predictably proposed breakup legislation.

 Then they caucused.

Have no idea what happened, but bam! As soon as it was over, word spread like wildfire that young Democrat Delegate Doug Skaff reversed his position and now he, too, supported a breakup.

Why? I think he decided it was the right thing to do for constituents, and he had the courage to say so to his caucus. A caucus, by the way, is a very intimate gathering of people who are not hesitant to express their true feelings to you in real terms.

Next I remember seeing Skaff walk toward the speaker’s office, where he stood outside, face flushed, presumably steeling himself for a mental beating that was to occur.

I have no idea what happened inside, but any of us who have ever been sent to the principal’s office can guess. He emerged with his position intact, and the breakup of the 30th was on.

But how to break up? The most the caucus was willing to do was to morph into two parts: a three-member and a four-member district.

So, today, Kanawha County has the four-member 35th District and three-member 36th.

Meanwhile, north of the Kanawha River, the three Republican members of the old 32nd quickly chose to form three single-member districts. Poof. Done.

And that’s how Kanawha County came to have four single-member districts, one four-member district and one with three members. At least according to me.

It took immense political courage for Delegate Skaff to do what was in the best interest of his constituents. It took facing down his caucus. It took submitting to a mental pounding of leadership. And it cost him personally.

I know one delegate who has never spoken to him since. There were probably more. Maybe it is not a big deal to you, but that’s the kind of price redistricting extracts when it’s left up to delegates. It’s civilized civil war.

There is a better way to redistrict. It’s a commission approach. The Legislature should adopt it.

Tom Crouser is a small business consultant writing from his home place at Mink Shoals. He may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @WVTomCrouser.

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