Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission

By: - January 6, 2021 2:15 pm

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial. 

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.