Hey incumbents, the General Assembly will survive without you

September 10, 2021 12:01 am

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

George Barker may have thought he was in the clear. The state senator from Northern Virginia was the chief sponsor of his chamber’s bill to hold a voter referendum last year to start a redistricting commission. Citizens approved the plan by a large margin.

Surely the Fairfax County Democrat, in the Senate since 2008, would find smooth sailing as the 16-member panel crafted new boundaries for Virginia’s legislative and congressional seats. It’s the first time following the decennial census that the panel – composed of eight citizens and eight legislators, including Barker – had taken over the job formerly held by state lawmakers alone.

Previously, the party that controlled the General Assembly had had immense power in drawing the lines. That was often to the detriment of the minority party – and to many residents in the commonwealth, too.

Yet one of the initial drafts released last week did the unthinkable – at least, that’s what Barker suggested after consultants released possible legislative maps in Northern Virginia: He would be in the same district as another Democratic senator.

“I appreciate the draft part of it,” Barker said. “Because otherwise I would be submitting my resignation from the Senate today.”

You may have thought the comment was in jest. On Thursday, however, at the latest commission meeting, Barker took the stunning step of drawing an amended plan putting himself back in a Senate district with no other incumbents. He said it even would keep a community of interest together.

Well, how altruistic of him.

If this isn’t Exhibit A for incumbent protection writ large – among the things the panel was formed to fight against – I don’t know what is. My colleague Graham Moomaw wrote that Barker’s unusual attempt at self-preservation shocked his fellow commissioners.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax. (Senate of Virginia)

Before the meeting, Barker had told me by email he didn’t know whether he’d run for re-election if he and fellow Democrat Chap Petersen had to face off in a primary. Barker noted state senators don’t run again until 2023.

I didn’t know, at the time, about the plan Barker had cooked up. Nor did he mention it to me.

Probably an oversight.

You can bet Barker, who wrote an op-ed just days before the November election advocating approval of the referendum, was a mite flummoxed by the possible hurdle he discovered last week.

He shouldn’t have been.

If the proposed maps pass legal and procedural muster, panel members should take them seriously. The drafts of Northern Virginia Senate districts are less convoluted and less misshapen than the current ones. That suggests less manipulation – and mischief – than in past redistricting efforts.

It’s what all Virginians, even those few who might face a political sacrifice, should advocate. The panel hasn’t formally incorporated incumbents’ home addresses in the process. That’s what you do if you’re trying to craft what’s best for the state, instead of for politicians who cling desperately to office.


This may come as a shock to the 140 current members of the General Assembly, but here goes: The institution will survive if some of you don’t return. Your wisdom is appreciated, but newcomers bring their own set of skills and talents to keep the state House and Senate humming along.

Let me acknowledge all the caveats of the ongoing process:

So far, they’re just drafts. They will be re-tooled as commission members continue their work. School attendance zones and other factors could play a role in the final appearance of the redrawn districts. Racial balance in other parts of the state must be considered, too, as the panel gets micro in its task. The districts should be contiguous and compact as much as possible.

No districts resembling a pterodactyl in shape, please. We’ve been there, and federal courts have jettisoned previous concoctions.

The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the “Gerry-mander,” named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain)

Whatever is drawn by the commission must be approved by the General Assembly in an up-or-down vote. If legislators reject the commission’s proposals, the state Supreme Court would be in charge of drawing the maps and use its own consultants.

If it comes to that, though, what’s the point? Legislators who dismiss the panel’s mapmaking – possibly out of naked self-interest – should announce why they’ve rejected an effort to produce a plan that is broader-based and more transparent than before.

“What’s notable about this new system is they have to do (their work) in front of everybody,” Liz White, executive director of the anti-gerrymandering group OneVirginia2021, told me early Thursday.

They have to justify those decisions, White added, “and prove that … it doesn’t harm their communities.”

This is what voters sought. This is what’s fair. It could lead to more competitive districts and reduce extremism, too, according to some scholars.

That’s much more important than safeguarding a seat for an incumbent.


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]