Elections, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Public hearing speakers say House district maps break up communities of interest, small towns

CHARLESTON — The House of Delegates Redistricting Committee opened the third day of the redistricting special session with a public hearing on its proposed maps — and the first speaker of the hearing dropped jaws by taping a tattered Confederate flag to the lectern.

Howard Swint, of Charleston, was graphically protesting what he called “blatant gerrymandering” and “colluding with the National Alliance” in the redrawing of what is District 48 on the current House delegate district map.

As previously reported, the change was made at the request of Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, to protect the safety of Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, who is black and the youngest House member.

The original map placed the national headquarters of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group (the group was mistakenly referred to as the Aryan Nation in early reports), in Hanna’s district, and there were concerns about his safety while campaigning in and representing that locale. So the district was redrawn with his consent.

Swint characterized the move as a setback for West Virginia that will serve as a national embarrassment. However, Steele has told reporters he never spoke with the National Alliance.

Eight other speakers followed Swint. All focused on the House district map, with no comments about the proposed Congressional map.

Aryanna Islam, of Fairmont, said the proposed map breaks up communities of interest in Marion County. Pleasant Valley, for instance, is split between two districts — 74 and 75 — and there will not be a sole delegate representing the east-side school system as a whole. She recommended following the lines of magisterial districts.

Julie Archer, with West Virginia Citizens Action Group and West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections, said the proposed 100-single-member districts needlessly split many small towns and cities that could be kept whole — Elkins, Lewisburg and Shepherdstown, to name a few.

The maps also split and disenfranchise minority communities, such as Institute and Dunbar, she said.

Kathy Ferguson, of the Institute/Dunbar area, echoed that. Dunbar, West Dunbar, Institute and the Institute Hillside areas are a single community of interest that grew up around West Virginia State University, but the map breaks them up, she said. “We lost one of our legs of our three-legged stool.”

And the map lines in that area, she said, illogically jump back and forth over the Kanawha River when they should more naturally follow the river.

Former Delegate John Overington was the Legislature’s longest-serving delegate when he retired in 2018 and was a leading proponent for the change to 100 single-member districts. He spoke at the hearing and recounted that the effort to break up districts began with the 1991 redistricting.

At the time, he said, Kanawha County was a 12-member district and nearly all of them came from Charleston. It disenfranchised other towns and minority voters. Even after it was broken up, smaller multi-member districts were drawn to make sure minority candidates couldn’t get elected.

“I think single-delegate districts is the way to make sure we don’t return to those practices of the past,” he said.

The House convenes at 11 a.m. and HB 301, the bill containing the House district maps, is on third reading with amendents pending — six so far — and will be up for passage. HB 302, the House version of the Congressional map, is on second reading.

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