When the curtain rose on the most recent legislative redistricting map in 2021, a new District 100 had been created for the House of Delegates here in the Eastern Panhandle. Many were surprised to find that reliably liberal Shepherdstown had been joined to reliably conservative Shannondale. I wouldn’t want to guess which neighborhood is less comfortable with this shotgun marriage.
In the 2022 election for delegate from the new District 100, the Republicans ran Bill Ridenour and the Democrats ran Susan Benzinger. Neither had ever served in elective office before. In his campaign flyer, Ridenour made the remarkable claim that “our rights are God given not derived from any government.” Our Founding Fathers and the countless state representatives who voted to ratify our Bill of Rights would be dumbstruck to hear this.
Regrettably the Founding Fathers couldn’t vote in our 2022 election, which is perhaps why Ridenour won out over Benzinger. Less than half of Jefferson County’s eligible voters actually cast ballots. The predictable left/right pattern of precincts played out. Benzinger beat Ridenour 347 to 46 in Shepherdstown at Trinity Church — precinct 33, while Ridenour beat Benzinger 520 to 249 in Blue Ridge Acres — precinct 17. This balance in District 100 is key to my point, so hold the thought.
Ridenour has turned out to be the most extreme right-wing legislator any county sent to Charleston. It’s not even close. For example, he sponsored a bill to remove the requirement that children be vaccinated before attending public schools and another to eliminate all inspections of motor vehicles. Most outrageous of all Ridenour sponsored legislation that would have declared some of the knuckleheads who invaded our national Capitol on January 6, 2021 to be “political prisoners.” He couldn’t get a single other Republican to join with him in sponsoring that bill. If Ridenour thinks any of these proposed bills would be supported by a majority of voters in District 100, he does not have his feet planted firmly on this planet.
How can Ridenour justify behaving this way, particularly as a delegate from a balanced District 100? There are a number of theories for how an elected representative should function. One, the “delegate” model, holds that an elected representative should act as the agent of his constituency, voting as if under instruction to do or not do certain things. Another is the “trustee” model, which holds that voters elect a representative to use his best judgment on what is good for them, regardless of whether they would agree with him on that particular matter. An example would be voting for a President’s budget for the overall good of the country, even though it involves the closure of a military base in the representative’s home district.
But even more basically, wouldn’t Ridenour have to demonstrate that District 100 voters chose him because he intended to propose the legislation and vote as he has? A candidate can and should be specific as to what he will try to do, what problems he intends to fix, and what advances he hopes to make. Then if the candidate wins a substantial majority of the votes uniformly in his district, he can comfortably say that voters gave him a mandate to do those things. Ridenour’s campaign materials don’t give us a clue that he intended to occupy the fringe of policy, even within the Republican party, and he made very few public appearances during the campaign.
When a delegate doesn’t have a mandate from the voters — either because he wasn’t clear what he would do on the issues of the day, or because he didn’t receive a large percentage of the votes throughout the district — then he isn’t functioning either as a delegate or a trustee. He is rogue.
Ridenour should stop behaving as if the legislature is a private playground to act out his fantasies about libertarian policy and governance. Yes, elections have consequences and he won the election, but behaving as if “winner takes all” in disregard of at least 45% of the voters is frankly what is wrong with our politics today. A little more humility and appreciation of views that don’t align with his own is called for. It would be great if voters in District 100 could feel they have a delegate who represents all of them. Sadly, that is not the case.