Civics

LACK OF LEGISLATIVE DIVERSITY NOT LIKELY TO CHANGE

West Virginia will continue to have a Legislature that looks less and less like the demographics of the state as a whole, with women and people of color further underrepresented in House and Senate chambers, and with white men over-represented by a factor of 185 percent.

© West Virginia Legislature
© West Virginia Legislature

LACK OF LEGISLATIVE DIVERSITY NOT LIKELY TO CHANGE

When I wrote the column announcing my retirement (or semi-retirement) from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, I recounted the many technological improvements that occurred over the course of my career in journalism. What hasn’t changed much over that time is the composition of the Legislature.

When I covered my first legislative session in 1990, white men occupied 108 of the 134 seats in the Senate and House of Delegates.

This session, as I enter into my new role as a part-time columnist, that number has grown to 113 – and that number would have been higher had Gov. Jim Justice not appointed two women and a Black man to seats vacated by white male legislators.

In 1990, the only African-American in the Legislature was Delegate Ernest Moore, D-McDowell. (His son, Cliff Moore, would later represent the district.)

Currently, that number is up to four, although Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, was appointed by Justice when Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, resigned to become a U.S. Attorney. Brown is the lone Black member of the Senate, and becomes the first African-American in the Senate since Sen. Marie Redd, D-Cabell, who served one term beginning in 1999.

Astoundingly, Brown is the first Black man to serve in the state Senate in the state’s 158 years.

If the Legislature accurately reflected state demographics, there should be five African-Americans serving in the House and Senate.

Also in 1990, there were 25 women in the Legislature, a number that has declined to 18 in 2022, and was as low as 16 last session before Justice appointed Sen. Hannah Geffert, D-Berkeley, and Delegate Kathie Hess Crouse, R-Putnam, to fill seats vacated by white men.

If representation in the Legislature corresponded precisely with state demographics, there should be 61 white male legislators.

So why do we have 113 white men serving in the Legislature?

The reason, frankly, is because they want it that way. White men have controlled the Legislature long before I ever started covering the place, and have made policy decisions and enacted rules that favor themselves.

In 1991, a redistricting committee controlled by moderate-to-conservative white males decided to break up Kanawha County, which at the time was a 12-member multi-member House district.

They did so under the guise of turning Charleston’s downtown, East End, and West Side into what they called a minority influence district. Actually, the new district had a 31 percent minority population, so only by West Virginia standards could it be argued that it met that definition.

However, what it did very effectively was to isolate a reliably progressive voting bloc within a single delegate district, assuring that those voters in Charleston could not influence the outcome of the other House races.

Over time, that helped flip the Kanawha County House delegation from predominately Democrat to predominately Republican.

In 2001, after Redd’s historic win, redistricting expanded the portion of Redd’s senatorial district in rural Wayne County, ostensibly to adjust for population losses in Huntington. Redd lost her 2002 reelection bid, as well as a 2006 Senate run. Redistricting effectively drew Redd out of her district.

With redistricting in 2021, the numbers of white men serving in the Legislature is almost certain to increase after the 2022 elections, with the House of Delegates being broken up into 100 single-member districts (research shows that women and minority candidates tend to fare better in multi-member districts), and with gerrymandering that splits cities including Charleston, Huntington, Morgantown and Martinsburg among multiple House districts, and plucks Charleston out of Kanawha County, putting it in a Senate district with rural Clay and Roane counties, and parts of Putnam and Jackson counties, among other measures to dilute the influence of urban areas.

What that means is West Virginia will continue to have a Legislature that looks less and less like the demographics of the state as a whole, with women and people of color further underrepresented in House and Senate chambers, and with white men over-represented by a factor of 185 percent.

Arguably, the lack of diversity in the Legislature is a key reason why bills are advancing this session to ban abortion after 15 weeks, to permit recall elections for city and county ordinances, presumably to allow recall of LGBTQ Fairness Ordinances, and to permit individuals, businesses, and organizations to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom.

The likely outcome is that the state will become even less diverse and inclusive, and will continue to lose population. Personally, I don’t know how West Virginia reverses that trend at this point.

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