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W.Va. panhandle's growth may not boost influence

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The Eastern Panhandle gained two seats in the House of Delegates, thanks to its population growth. But some lawmakers and political observers say the region still faces challenges in increasing its political influence.

Delegate Craig Blair, who won a Senate seat in November, says one barrier is the Eastern Panhandle's distance from Charleston.

"To put it in perspective, when we're in Charleston, the Eastern Panhandle -- Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan County -- is not even on the weather map," Blair, R-Berkeley, told The Journal ( ).

"That creates an artificial barrier, and it makes it difficult. And that's where having your representation increase brings greater awareness," he said.

Blair and Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, say another challenge is the region's predominantly Republican representatives.

Republicans gained seats in both the Senate and the House in the general election but Democrats still control the two chambers.

"(Republicans have) been far outnumbered from that standpoint, so it makes it a double whammy," Blair said.

"When you've got those two barriers, being in the minority and having a geographical divide, you've got to work much, much harder."

Only three of the panhandle's 10 delegates are Democrats. Two of the Democrats have no seniority, and Doyle said they won't have a committee chairmanship or vice chairmanship, positions that are needed to make deals benefiting their areas.

"It isn't just the number of people you have," Doyle said. "It's the positions of influence in which they find themselves."

"The chair of a committee has sole authority to determine the agenda," Doyle said "That's why it's important to have people in the majority party to hang around long enough to be committee chairs."

Doyle said the region does have substantial influence in the Senate, where Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, is majority leader and Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, has served three terms.

The Eastern Panhandle will become more important in statewide elections, particularly in gubernatorial elections, as its population grows, Doyle said.

But the population still is not large enough for the region to have much political sway, said Mark Stern, professor of state and local politics at Shepherd University.

"Relative to the whole state .<!p>.<!p>. we're just a drop in the bucket," Stern said. "(When) we can become a quarter-of-a-million or more, that's when you'll see power gravitate to the Eastern Panhandle."

Stern said the Eastern Panhandle's proximity to the Washington, D.C., area is an opportunity to bring money and people into the state.

"It's about leveraging that for the state, which means this region becomes the vehicle for bringing in money," Stern said.

Information from: The Journal,



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