Va. Redistricting Commission implodes as Republicans reject compromise and Democrats walk out

By: - October 8, 2021 3:29 pm

Draft maps are presented at a meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s first-ever attempt to draw fair political maps collapsed in spectacular fashion Friday, when frustrated Democrats walked out of a meeting after Republicans rebuffed their suggestions for reaching a compromise.

The commission, which has been holding regular meetings for more than a month, never came close to reaching an agreement on final General Assembly maps. Partisanship dominated the process from the start, with the commission hiring two teams of overtly partisan consultants and repeatedly failing to agree on how to merge two sets of maps.

The process now appears headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, unless the three Democratic walkouts change their minds and agree to meet again. But that appears unlikely based on how Friday’s meeting ended.

The gridlock reached a breaking point as the commission failed to agree on which maps to use as a starting point for its final push for a deal. The commission’s eight Democrats voted to begin with a Republican-drawn House of Delegates map and Democratic-drawn Senate map. Republicans voted against that offer and suggested keeping both a GOP and Democratic Senate map alive — a proposal all eight Democrats voted down.

That prompted Democratic co-chair Greta Harris to call it quits. If the commission is going to work in 2031, she said, it shouldn’t have any legislators on it and all members should be required to take a history class to understand why Black commissioners felt so strongly about protecting minority voting power.

“I think our work is done,” Harris said. “And what a shame it is.”

After a brief recess, Democrats motioned to adjourn the meeting. That effort failed when two Democrats voted with Republicans to continue working toward compromise. But Harris and two other Democratic citizens, James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins, simply left the room, making clear they felt further negotiations with Republicans would be useless.

Harris and Abrenio appealed directly to the Supreme Court, saying they hope the justices, who lean conservative, will do a better job of living up to the principles of fairness the commission was supposed to embody.

“I never want to be involved in this again. Because this is not right,” Abrenio said. “I’m sorry to you all that I couldn’t get the job done.”

Republicans said they objected to working with the Democratic-drawn Senate proposal because it was only unveiled Friday morning, after a week’s worth of public hearings where citizens were unable to see it.

“Last I checked there were no public comments on that map,” said Republican commissioner Jose Feliciano.

Though it was clear the commission was only voting on which maps to use as a starting point, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said he wanted to compare and contrast two Senate proposals instead of being tied to one.

“I don’t understand how the spirit of compromise and working together is not looking at what those differences are, talking about those differences, and trying to come to a resolution on them,” McDougle said.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, urged the commission to keep going.

“I’m reminded that when they pick a pope there’s a lot of tie votes before they get to the white smoke,” Stanley said. “They don’t give up.”

Democrats said the Republican speeches rang hollow, calling for a spirit of compromise that was nowhere to be found when it was time to vote.

“Let’s not kid ourselves about what’s happening here,” said Democrat Sean Kumar, who voted to continue working and stayed in the room as other Democratic citizen members left. “I’m sorry but that speech was inconsistent with what we’ve seen. There has not been a willingness to really try to even start with a mutual starting point.”

The commission convened at 9 a.m. Friday. The meeting’s abrupt end came at around 2:45 p.m., leaving the remaining commissioners at a loss for what to do.

The remaining commissioners were told they probably should not continue to conduct business without a quorum. Republican co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko opined aloud that she alone could perhaps call another meeting without Harris, her partner in coordinating the commission’s work.

“Whether we will have a quorum at that time, that remains to be seen,” she said.

Though the commission had only discussed re-drawing General Assembly maps, it was supposed to follow that up by redrawing Virginia’s congressional maps later this year. It’s unclear if commissioners have the appetite to even attempt that task or will simply ask the Supreme Court to take over redistricting altogether.

The commission, made up of eight sitting legislators and eight citizens nominated by General Assembly leaders and selected by retired judges, was the result of years of advocacy from redistricting reformers who wanted to strip the legislature of its powers to gerrymander. Though many called for a completely nonpartisan commission with no legislators involved at all, that concept didn’t have enough support to pass the General Assembly.

The hybrid commission passed the General Assembly two years in a row and voters overwhelmingly approved it last year.

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus were vocally opposed to the commission, arguing it wouldn’t do enough to protect minority voting rights. Race proved to be a key sticking point, with partisan lawyers offering conflicting advice on when the commission could and couldn’t use racial demographics to guide it’s map-drawing decisions.

After winning a majority in 2019, many House Democrats turned sharply against the commission idea, saying it would inevitably result in a deadlock that would hand redistricting to the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

But some Democrats felt that outcome wouldn’t be as disastrous as predicted, and may actually move the state closer to the goal of removing legislators from the process altogether.

The court has to follow criteria requiring geographic compactness and racial and political fairness. Instead of justices drawing maps themselves, the process calls for the court to select two outside experts, from lists of nominees submitted by each political party, who will present plans to the court for approval.

The state’s high court has already sided with Democrats in the first redistricting lawsuit of the 2021 cycle, rejecting a Republican attempt to overrule a new Democratic law requiring prisoners to be counted as residents of their hometowns, not where they’re incarcerated.

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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.