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Region must keep united voice heard on Capitol Hill

Don’t look now, but the Mahoning Valley could face a severe identity crisis come the 2022 congressional elections.

As a result of 2020 U.S. Census data released last week, Ohio will lose one of its 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s because the new Census figures show our population grew only 2.3 percent since 2010, far less than the 7.4 percent average growth nationwide. That means each of the congressional districts will need to be drawn now to accommodate 787,000 residents, or about 66,226 more constituents than a typical district today.

All of this threatens not only preservation of the state’s 13th Congressional District in which Mahoning and Trumbull counties are dominant forces, it also threatens cohesive representation of the Valley — typically viewed as Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

Our region stands to lose too much should it become fragmented into the districts of three, four or more U.S. House members. Clearly, its collective voice would be severely muted.

That’s why members of the Ohio General Assembly from both political parties, particularly those representing the Valley, should make it a priority now to keep that collective voice and regional identity as strong and cohesive as possible as decennial congressional redistricting begins.

Lawmakers must not lose sight of the shared struggles and common interests of communities large and small throughout the Valley.

Take unemployment, for example. In the latest rankings of highest rates joblessness in Ohio, Mahoning and Trumbull counties lead the pack of our 88 counties.

Take poverty. The Youngstown-Warren-Boardman Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, population 565,782 in 2010, ranks first in Ohio for extreme poverty. The Valley also ranks in the Top 10 of extreme poverty metro areas in the entire nation, according to a study by the 24/7 Wall Street website.

Also take formal and informal cooperative ventures among the three counties. The Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, for example, has worked to create a unified Valley voice in areas such as transportation, water and air quality, land use planning, and local infrastructure projects for decades. An increasing number of local governments have been sharing services and creating mutual-aid agreements with neighboring communities. Culturally, the three-county area often unites as one common venue for arts, entertainment, sports and other sources of social engagement.

That common ground would be too much to lose in the worst-case scenario of the Valley becoming slices of four or five other regions’ sociopolitical pies. Fortunately, some positive signs emerge toward preserving our collective identity in Congress.

First, considering that Republican state lawmakers will play dominant (but not exclusive) roles in drawing congressional district maps for 2022 through 2031, the growing redward shift of the Valley should work in our favor. Republicans made their strongest showings in decades in the presidential race last year, as well as in several key state and local races. Given that Mahoning and Trumbull counties no longer can be perceived as Democratic Party strongholds, the inclination to carve the 13th District into three neighboring Republican-dominated districts would be much less compelling.

Second, redistricting reforms that Ohioans overwhelmingly approved at the polls in 2018 take effect this year. The initiative was designed to reduce the likelihood of gerrymandering — intentionally drawing districts to benefit one political party over another. Ohio, after all, has been notorious for its gerrymandering, most notably in 2012 when bizarrely drawn districts ensured 75 percent majority Republican representation in Congress despite the near equal numbers of Democrat and Republican registered voters in the state. It has stayed that way ever since 2012.

The new redistricting law, however, provides several safeguards against outright gerrymandering. Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, points out one of the most important safeguards for Mahoning Valley interests: All efforts must be exerted not to break a county into more than one congressional district.

In addition, 60 percent of legislators in the Ohio House and Senate — plus half of the members of the minority party — must approve all of the revised redistricting lines. If that fails, the redistricting chores would move to a seven-member independent commission.

Despite such safeguards, we hope lead mapmakers in Columbus take to heart the immensely strong public interest of keeping the Mahoning Valley’s collective voice as robust as possible on Capitol Hill. It could best do so by making all of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties part of one Valley-dominant congressional district beginning next year.

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