Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam

As Republicans appeared poised to push forward a vote this month on new maps to fix 11 House districts a court has ruled were racially gerrymandered, Gov. Ralph Northam vowed a veto.

And the governor, a Democrat, says he will support a push to “enshrine nonpartisan redistricting in the Virginia Constitution” via an amendment in the next legislative session.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R- Colonial Heights, announced Tuesday that he would reconvene the GOP-controlled House of Delegates on Sunday, Oct. 21 at 5 p.m. to work on a remedial redistricting map that’s supposed to be approved by Oct. 30.

“I am reconvening the House of Delegates on Oct. 21 to fulfill our constitutional duty to pass a redistricting map,” Cox wrote in a statement. “I am firmly against judicial overreach and allowing federal judges to draw the map.”

But later in the day, Northam pledged to veto House Bill 7003 from Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, which passed out of the Privileges and Elections Committee last week on a party-line vote.

“I have closely monitored the legislature’s progress to produce a remedy. I understand and appreciate the effort devoted to the maps drafted in House Bills 7001, 7002, and 7003; however, the nature of the Aug. 30 and Sept. 27 proceedings in the House Privileges and Elections Committee reinforced my belief that this partisan process should not continue and that the federal court is best positioned to construct a remedial districting plan,” Northam said.

He said a nonpartisan special master, the process the court will employ, “is the best course of action before us,” adding that “Virginians deserve fair and constitutional lines in place in time for June 2019 primaries, without further delay.”

Northam said nonpartisan redistricting is the “true solution.”

“I will support this effort and engage when appropriate to reinforce the fundamentals of fairness, which are lacking in the current process,” Northam said. “Furthermore, I will continue to advocate for the protection of minority representation in the General Assembly.”

Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, stands in the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, stands in the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Northam supported nonpartisan redistricting and a constitutional amendment on the campaign trail, but this is the first time he’s broached the issue since taking office, said Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, which is pushing to take drawing political maps out of the hands of politicians and placing the job with an independent commission.

“We are grateful for the governor’s support,” Cannon said. “That’s a huge deal to the reform community … because he’ll be the one with the veto pen in 2021 if we don’t get a constitutional amendment.”

Jones’ map is politically neutral and race-blind, Cox says, and Jones said during the committee meeting he didn’t consider racial data when drawing it. That prompted a line of questioning from Democrats, who thought fixing the map would mean unpacking black voters from majority-minority districts around Richmond and in Hampton Roads.

The map kept 32 affected districts “partisan-neutral,” as Jones called it, meaning no competitive district swayed significantly more or less toward one party.

“While we maintain the constitutionality of the bipartisan plan adopted in 2011 and will continue to pursue our appeal to the Supreme Court, we are also trying to meet the Oct. 30 deadline set by the district court, ” Cox wrote.

Republicans weren’t exactly blindsided by Northam’s announcement.

Attorneys for the party wrote in a September court filing that “it seems that the governor may be unwilling to even consider a plan the General Assembly passes.”

In a statement late Tuesday, House Democrats backed the governor.

“The House Democratic Caucus remains fully committed to correcting the racial gerrymandering in the current legislative map. It is unfortunate that our Republican colleagues have consistently chosen to delay this process,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “As the recent Privileges and Elections hearing proved, their map, HB 7003, does not address the constitutional infirmities and serves only to protect the Republicans’ partisan advantage. We support the governor’s decision to veto HB 7003 and appreciate his commitment to fair and constitutional districts.”

Legislative Black Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, who lives in one of the districts deemed by the court to be unconstitutionally drawn, said the GOP map ignores the problem the court identified with the districts.

“We must remain focused on the real issue, which is that 11 House districts were racially gerrymandered to reduce the voting power of black Virginians,” Bagby said.

Republicans said Northam’s announcement was contrary to private conversations he had with lawmakers.

“At least the governor is finally being honest,” Cox said. “After weeks of feigning interest, the governor has admitted at last that he wants federal judges appointed by President Obama to draw a redistricting map to deliver a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates.”

Cox said Republicans are willing to work on a new map “so long as it complies with the court order, is politically-neutral, and adheres to traditional redistricting criteria.”

“In the coming days we will evaluate whether there are any alternative pathways and the necessity of meeting as scheduled on Oct. 21,” he added.

Jones said “it is hard to overstate my disappointment in the governor, someone I’ve known personally and professionally for over a decade.”

He called his map a “work in progress” and said he was willing to work with members of both parties because “it is the right thing to do.”

“Unfortunately in this case, the right thing appears to taken a back seat to those who are determined to win political power no matter the cost,” Jones said.

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to correct the characterization of a future potential vote on GOP-drawn district maps. It remains unknown whether such a vote would be strictly along party lines.