Va. Redistricting Commission starts on bipartisan note, but census delays add uncertainty

By: - January 21, 2021 7:32 pm

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

Out of an abundance of bipartisanship, members of the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission didn’t want to pick just one chairperson at its first meeting Thursday.

They picked two citizen chairwomen, Democrat Greta Harris and Republican Mackenzie Babichenko, with an agreement to have them alternate running the meetings.

“I think that way we’ll have a balanced approach moving forward,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, one of the architects of the 16-member commission that will be redrawing Virginia’s congressional and legislative maps for the first time.

The bipartisan commission is made up of eight sitting legislators and eight citizen members, who were nominated by General Assembly leaders and picked by a panel of retired judges.

Harris is the president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition, a community development nonprofit in Richmond. Babichenko is an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

When the map-drawing process will happen is a major question looming over Virginia politics this year, one that will shape how the 2021 House of Delegates races play out in the summer and fall. Virginia can’t redraw it’s maps until it receives new U.S. Census data, but difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic mean the state may not get that information in time to draw new districts for this year’s elections.

Meg Lamb, a legislative staff attorney handling the technical side of redistricting, told the commissioners that the U.S. Senate, now under Democratic control, is considering legislation pushing the deadline for delivering data to the states from April 30 to July 31. Once the data arrives, the commission has 45 days to draw new legislative maps.

With that in mind, Lamb said, it’s “not likely” new maps could be drawn and implemented in time for House primaries in late August or early September.

“So we’ll get to spend a lot of time together this year and probably some of next,” Lamb said.

If new maps can’t be drawn in time, this year’s House elections will likely be held using the current districts. Special elections on the new maps could potentially be held next year, with another round of regular elections in 2023.

Offering a glimmer of hope, Barker said he’s been in touch with someone in President Joe Biden’s incoming administration about Virginia’s urgent need for clarity on the census timeline.

“He does not have concrete information yet in terms of sort of the clear range of possible times in which the information might be supplied,” Barker said. “I did argue for them making every effort to have it done some time in April.”

Lamb said many in the redistricting field are expecting “very much a later summer, early fall data delivery.”

Only Virginia and New Jersey have elections this year that require new maps to be in place.

In redistricting years, the General Assembly usually passes a bill pushing legislative primaries from June to August. That hasn’t been done in the legislative session that began last week because lawmakers don’t even know that timeline is possible, but Barker said the legislature could insert language into the budget to accomplish the same thing.

Apart from the scheduling challenge, commissioners mainly used their first meeting to introduce themselves and discuss organization, talking over the possibility of hiring outside consultants and lawyers, training for the eight citizen members who are new to the process and even whether chat messages should or shouldn’t be allowed to pop up on screen during their virtual meetings.

The commissioners were reminded that the law prevents them from discussing redistricting matters with any outside party, but it wasn’t entirely clear if that meant they also couldn’t speak to reporters covering the process.

“Don’t talk to the press yet,” Lamb said. “We will come up with something for you all.”

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, one of the most vocal opponents of the commission concept when it was approved by the General Assembly and voters last year but was nevertheless selected for one of the eight seats for legislators, tried to take an optimistic tone as the meeting began, saying “I hope that I was wrong about everything I predicted and that things go really well.”

But he pushed back when three of the commission’s four senators, who were all addressing the meeting from the same camera, began talking about a list of specific lawyers the commission might hire.

“I thought this was a citizen-led commission,” Simon said. “I’m hearing a lot of leading coming from the small box with the senators in it.”

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said the list was a suggestion for later, not something the commission was being asked to approve immediately.

The status of Republican commissioner Jose Feliciano Jr. was not raised at the meeting. Some Democrats are calling for him to be removed from the commission over old social media posts in which he tweeted slurs at female celebrities who had criticized President Donald Trump. Feliciano has said he regrets some of his language, but doesn’t think it should disqualify him from serving.

House Democrats were preparing to introduce legislation creating a mechanism for the removal of commission members, but Feliciano’s colleagues have given no indication they intend to do so.

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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.