‘God only knows how long I’m going to be in Siberia for this:’ Why one Democrat says he broke with his party on redistricting

By: - October 8, 2018 6:05 am
The Virginia House of Delegates met Thursday to discuss redistricting, but didn't get far. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 30, 2018)

The Virginia House of Delegates. Delegates voted Monday to pass legislation that will provide protections for residents evicted from assisted living facilities in Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 30, 2018)

Del. Stephen Heretick, D-Portsmouth, says he broke with Democrats on redistricting after party leaders discarded his input on how his district should be drawn, put him through cloak-and-dagger conference calls and ordered him and other delegates not to cooperate with Republicans as they put together maps of their own.

He ignored them, first criticizing his own party’s proposal on the House floor and later voicing support for a plan put forward by House Appropriations Chairman Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

And, as retribution, he says, the party has begun pulling support. Gov. Ralph Northam, as the Richmond-Time Dispatch reported Thursday, pulled out of a planned fundraiser. On Friday, he said a Democratic House Caucus employee backed out of planned fundraising phone calls.

The Mercury caught up with him for an interview about his concerns with the Democrats’ approach and the pushback that followed.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, found himself in hot water with his caucus after voicing support for Republican-drawn maps intended to fix 11 House districts a court has ruled were racially gerrymandered.

Q: To start, can you tell me about your concerns with the process so far and how Democrats have approached it?

A: Our caucus, I think with some justification, has pointed out that the Republicans have been a little slow to the dance in terms of offering anything in response to the federal court order. And I think it’s quite appropriate then for our caucus to at least offer something in an effort to address the court’s concerns and get that matter straightened out.

The problem is, the manner in which the Democratic caucus undertook its map drafting was anything but transparent. We were subject to last-minute notices of telephone conferences. We were shown maps that magically disappeared, almost like “Mission Impossible” plans, you know, that they vanished after 10 seconds. We were shown maps that literally disappeared as soon as the conference calls were over.

You also weren’t happy with the changes to your district, right? Under the Democrats’ plan, it would become a lot more Republican.

When the maps were initially shown to us, my district was substantially changed. I mean, we’re talking substantially changed. To the point where, I think I would only retain four precincts of the 19 I started with when I was elected first to the Portsmouth City Council back in 2004 and more recently elected to the General Assembly.

In the conversation I raised some questions about that and I was told that the reason for that, that they were trying to take me out of my own district more or less and to carve me down into two brand new cities, was to weaken Chris Jones, and that they were taking other opportunities as well in drawing these lines to try to weaken certain Republican districts, which, to my mind, and in some fairness, is certainly well over and beyond the scope of the federal court order.

In other words, the federal court order ordered us to redraw the 11 affected districts … and yet they were using this opportunity for a blatantly partisan purpose, and that is to try to weaken Republican incumbents by carving out some of their precincts in order to make those districts more democratically performing.

In other words, I think you heard me say this in front of the House, it was gerrymandering in response to gerrymandering. And I kind of took them to task for that. [They produced a second map that addressed those concerns.] Then they come back again without telling me and show me a third map which actually harms me even worse than the original map did. And I had some issues with that.

I was told it was not up to me. That the 11 affected members whose districts were subject to the court order, that they alone had the final say. That I was pretty much along for the ride and what they were going to do was what they were going to do.

In other words, shut up and sit down.

When does Del. Chris Jones’ proposed map come in to play?

Around that time, Del. Chris Jones calls me and a number of other members here in Hampton Roads and says, ‘Look, I’ve been on vacation and we’re a little late to this, but is there any way you’d be willing to work with us on a bipartisan basis to see if we can do another map, if we can work this out.’

Certainly I was amenable to that, because that’s really what the court requires us to do. I made no secret of the fact that I went over and met with Chairman Jones and discussed with him some of my concerns about how the districts would be redrawn. And remember, part of my concern is that we have continuity, we have communities of interest, we have several different factors we have to weigh. And coming from a local government background like I did, he’s had some, I think, sensitivity to that.

So, at the end of the day, I looked at his map and I thought, well, at least we gave it the college try. We tried to work together. And that’s something I’d tend to support over the suck it up and leave it kind of attitude that my own caucus had.

How have party leaders responded?

Since then, obviously, there’s been some further acrimony. You’ve seen the governor pulling out from an event for me. Frankly, we’ve been put under an awful lot of pressure. In calls from the caucus and in other ways to toe the party line, we’ve been told, we can not, should not, cooperate with the Republicans’ efforts in any way, shape or form. That it is the express intent for the caucus that our map will lose and that, you know, it will go to the courts for final determination. And for me, that’s somewhat misguided.

It may well end up with the courts to decide. I get that. But it seems to me that our voters, our constituents, at least expect us to do what the court ordered us to do. Or at least try. And so far, I can’t exactly point to my own side and say that they’ve been acting in good faith, because I don’t really believe that they have.

Now where is this coming from? I really don’t know. Now, the phone calls, the few that we had regarding this matter, were all very mysterious, I think I would say.

I was wondering, how do you even wind up on a phone call where you’re not sure who you’re talking to and where it came from?

That is the question, and you know, we know each others’ voices. But we also know there are other people on the call, sometimes identifiable only by a first name. You don’t know who they are representing, what role they played. It’s like, who are these people? And when you begin to ask, you don’t really get answers all that much.

You’re saying you felt pressured in caucus calls, what does that sound like when you’re getting pushed to acquiesce on this?

Up to now, the caucus motto has always been vote your district, vote your conscience. The caucus has always been tolerant of differing points of view, and that’s why I’m a bit proud to be a Democrat, because we have been able, up to now to say, “Hey, I don’t necessarily agree with this,” and that’s usually been taken quite well.

In this context, it’s been quite different. By the time we get on caucus-wide conference calls, obviously certain members have been pre-coached to chant the party line: “We have to stay united, we have to stay together, this has to be a unanimous decision. You may not cooperate with the Republicans. You should not reach out to the Republicans. If they’re reaching out to you, turn them away.”

That’s been the drumbeat throughout this process. It’s almost as if, and I think it’s true, that our caucus recognized that our maps would not be passed out of the House or Senate, obviously because of the Republican majorities. So, they were hoping that somehow the courts would end up with the deal and would somehow treat us better.

I can’t explain that, because to me that doesn’t make any real sense. Because you have some map maker sitting in California, which is probably where they are, drawing maps about Virginia and they don’t know the differences because certain adjacent neighborhoods in Portsmouth and certain adjacent neighborhoods in Suffolk, which, if you’re looking at a map you don’t know any different but nevertheless are not communities of shared interest in any way, shape or form. Never have been and probably won’t be for a very long time to come and people don’t understand those essential differences.

Having that drilled and drilled and drilled — that you cannot cooperate, you cannot acquiesce, you have to stay united. You know, we’re trying to portray to the public that this is a unanimous decision by our caucus and I can tell you that having spoken with a number of other members who have used words like bullying and intimidation, you know, they are concerned about the way they’re being treated as well.

So it’s not just me out there howling in the wilderness, although at the end of the day it may be. But I just haven’t seen our caucus act like this and I don’t know why it’s come to this.

What was the governor’s involvement? Obviously he’s said he’s going to veto Jones’ map. Was he involved earlier?

I do know that the governor’s PAC that politely told me earlier this week that he just wasn’t going to find the time to show up for me next Friday, was on those conference calls and what their roll in being on those calls was, I really can’t tell you. I can’t understand it. Because ostensibly at this level, it was a caucus decision. So, having unelected PAC directors sitting on these phone calls taking notes, to me, is a little unusual.

Obviously the governor’s office wants to keep tabs on these things. And at least with normal caucus affairs, the governor’s office has designated liaisons who will sit with us in briefings and who will lend us advice and guidance when needed. These were not those people. These were purely political operatives as far as I know, and that’s again a bit of a different flavor than we’ve seen over the past few years.

I don’t know exactly what’s going on with all this. I can’t imagine why there’s such a need in the view of our leadership for such hyper-partisanship in this process or why we’d be discouraged from reaching across the aisle to at least get something done, because we all use the euphemism, that is the Virginia way. But nevertheless, we have been specifically discouraged in many ways from doing that.

I’ve been taken to the woodshed now. And I’m a little surprised. I’ve always considered Ralph a friend. I’ve supported him for years. I think that he’s the kind of guy that stays away from such bare-knuckle politics. But at some point, somebody other than us, other than the rank and file members, are driving this discussion.

I can’t think of a single political reason why we would want the federal courts to unilaterally be drawing these maps instead of trying to get it done among ourselves, recognizing we get to do this all again in 2021.

It seems like the Hampton Roads delegates have been the ones more willing to work with Republicans on this. Is there a reason for that? 

I frankly have no basis for comparison, but I can tell you Del. Chris Jones is one of those guys who is really very moderate. I think he has a lot of credibility with a lot of us, and, again, he’s never been the sort of hyper-partisan you’ve seen in both caucuses who’s always throwing bombs from the other side. So when Chris reaches out, I got the feeling from his approach and his comments that he was acting in good faith. That he was doing what he thought the court required us to do, and I was able to respond to him in that same way.

Do you specifically support the map as he drew it or do you just see it as a starting point for a better map that could be created through further discussion?

I’ve always seen it, and I’ve told him, I think Chris’ map is a good starting point. Obviously, there’s some issues with it. But, you know, through any legislative process, if you can start with a vehicle that half way works, by the end of it, you might get something better. To me, it was a vastly better product and more importantly, a vastly better procedure than certainly we put on the table.

Democrats and Republicans have totally opposite interpretations of what the court order is directing the General Assembly to do. Republicans are approaching it as a very specific technical issue that they can address by redrawing the lines without looking at racial data and without any political impact. Democrats are arguing you can’t correct racial gerrymandering put in place by Republicans for political gain without there being at least some political consequences and gains for Democrats. Where do you stand on that?

I understand Republicans want to be as clinical as they possibly can to satisfy the court’s constitutionality concerns without auguring the balance of power. I get that. But I would say to you parenthetically that Democrats will be taking power anyway. So our need to overreach at this point is really more self-serving than it needs to be. Democrats tried to redraw districts that aren’t even affected under this order. To me, and you heard me say it, this is just a power grab. Republicans want to keep the status quo, the Democrats want to gain as much as they possibly can going in to the next election cycle. That’s just politics at play. That’s just more business as usual.

But would you agree with the Republican side that this can and should be accomplished without changing the partisan makeup of any competitive districts?

I understand the concerns on both sides, but what we’re doing here is responding to a very specific court order. As an attorney, I can tell you that when the court tells you to do something, you do what the court says. No more, no less. And in these circumstances, I think that to some extent the Republicans want to do less and the Democrats want to do a lot more and we have to strike a balance between those extremes. And I think Jones’ map, at least in its posture and the manner in which it was created, at least offered the possibility that would happen.

Going back to the pressure you’ve faced from within your party, are you concerned about any further repercussions?

Of course I am.

What might that look like?

I don’t know. I was scheduled to have fundraising call time with a member of the caucus staff just today. It had been on the books for several weeks and I was informed late last night that she would not be joining me today. I get the feeling there’s going to be some petty and unfortunate retribution on this. And again, it’s completely uncharacteristic for my caucus. I’m sorry to see it. But I guess time will tell. I hope that more mature heads will kind of see their way through this and we will emerge and continue to work together as friends.

I don’t know where this came from and why this has turned in to such an acrimonious thing. But I’ve always proudly been a Democrat and part of that is because Democrats have always been willing to tolerate disparate points of view. And we’ve always done that pretty well, except now. And I really don’t know why.

… But I do take issue with the fact that I am being singled out for being willing to cooperate in a bipartisan manner to comply with a federal court order. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and instead I get taken to the wood shed. And God only knows how long I’m going to be in Siberia for this.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.