VA House GOP introducing new redistricting plan with some Democratic support

BY GRAHAM MOOMAW AND MICHAEL MARTZ Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 26, 2018

An old political game has a new playbook, as a House of Delegates elections committee prepares to consider a new redistricting plan from House Republicans — this one with some Democratic support.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, filed a new plan on Wednesday to address racial gerrymandering that a federal court panel found in 11 majority-minority House districts.

The new effort, backed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, attempts to fashion a legislative compromise with bipartisan support to head off a potential move by Gov. Ralph Northam to let federal judges redraw House district boundaries before all seats come up for election next year.

“In discussions with members on both sides of the aisle, we agreed that we should have a legislative solution,” Jones said of his plan, which is backed publicly by at least four House Democrats and Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.

The glimmer of bipartisanship could force Democrats to choose between trying to strike a deal with Republicans or holding out for a court-drawn map that could be more favorable to their party in the 2019 elections.

“We’ll review the new proposal,” said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel.

No dramatic change

The proposal, which the House Privileges and Elections Committee will consider on Thursday, would not dramatically alter the partisan makeup of the House, where Republicans have a 51-49 edge.

The new proposal does not draw any two incumbents into the same district. It would keep the same political balance as House Democrats proposed for seven of the 11 districts that the three-judge panel found unconstitutional, including four districts in the Richmond area.

“This bill does not advantage one side versus the other,” Jones said.

In the Richmond area, the Jones map wouldn’t produce major swings in current districts that appear competitive. Several Democratic-held seats would gain Republican voters, but probably not enough to move them into battleground territory.

The suburban seats held by Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, and Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, would tilt slightly more Democratic. Farther south, GOP-held districts represented by Dels. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, would become a little more Republican.

The biggest geographic changes would occur in two districts represented by Dels. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, and Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, both of whom would see their districts stretch farther into new suburban and rural territory.

Bagby’s new district would lose Charles City County and stretch north to Ashland. McQuinn’s district would shift east to cover more of eastern Henrico County and less of northern Chesterfield County. Both districts would gain the same amount of Republican voters under Jones’ plan as they would under the Democratic proposal.

Two districts closer to Richmond’s urban core, represented by Dels. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, and Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, would see slight changes. Both look the same under the Jones proposal and the Democratic plan.

Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, would see a substantial GOP shift in her district, losing parts of Hopewell and areas east of Petersburg and gaining a chunk of western Chesterfield currently represented by Cox.

Cox’s district would become more Democratic by shifting north to cover new areas of Chesterfield near the county airport and Chesterfield Courthouse.

Oct. 30 deadline

The House faces an Oct. 30 deadline to redraw its electoral map after the federal panel found that lawmakers unconstitutionally used race to pack additional African-American voters into 11 majority-minority districts during the 2011 redistricting process.

Republicans are appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome of that appeal is uncertain, but if the General Assembly fails to act by the lower court’s deadline, the judges would appoint an outside expert to draw a remedial map.

Both parties had introduced redistricting proposals over the past few weeks, but neither seemed to gain traction as a serious legislative proposal.

Jones, an influential dealmaker who was the architect of the existing House map, was not in Richmond for the Aug. 30 special session on redistricting. Since then, he’s created a map that has drawn support from at least four Democratic lawmakers, mostly from the Hampton Roads area.

“I believe that the focus in 2019 will be a more permanent solution — to create a system that fairly draws political lines,” said Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, one of the Democrats supporting Jones’ effort. “But at this time, this is something that the legislature is required to address, and Hampton Roads can lead these efforts and bring everyone to the table.”

Last week, Republicans released a redistricting proposal sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. That map will remain on the table, but Bell intends to amend his plan to correct an oversight that resulted in Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, being drawn into the same district as Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News.

Toscano and Cox

House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said his caucus will review the new proposal, but he cautioned that the earlier GOP plan didn’t solve the constitutional issues. He also questioned why Republicans are insisting on a map that doesn’t “upset the partisan balance” when that has never been a goal laid out in the law or the court case.

“We’re not going to embrace a legislative fix just for the sake of having a legislative fix,” Toscano said. “It’s got to be constitutional. So we’ll be looking at this new map with an eye of assessing its constitutionality.”

Cox, the House speaker, indicated Wednesday that he sees Jones’ redistricting effort as the best option for legislative action.

“Delegate Bell has filed a plan that lays out a legal marker to demonstrate to the court and the public what a politically neutral, race-blind map looks like, but the speaker is supportive of and eager to find a legislative solution through bipartisan collaboration and compromise,” said Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh.

Del. Cliff Hayes Jr., D-Chesapeake, who supports Jones’ proposal, said in a statement that the public expects legislators to find the “best alternative to no agreement,” as they did this year on Medicaid expansion and raising the felony larceny threshold.

“The greater good would be, as ordered by the court, to work together in a bipartisan manner to develop a redistricting plan by October 30th that in every way gives Virginians the opportunity to vote for the person of their choice,” he said in the statement.

In addition to Convirs-Fowler and Hayes, two other House Democrats confirmed on Wednesday that they support Jones’ effort to find a legislative compromise — Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, ranking Democrat on Appropriations.

Heretick was unhappy with the Democratic plan Bagby proposed in August, both because of the map it produced and “the process some of my own folks went about to get there.”

He commended Jones for reaching out to legislators in both parties. “As with all the variations, I’m trying to keep an open mind, but at least this one I’ve had a full opportunity to have input,” he said Wednesday.

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, confirmed Wednesday that he has discussed the issue with the Appropriations chairman but said he has not committed to supporting the proposal.

Spruill, who served 22 years in the House before moving to the Senate, said: “I’m working with Chris Jones on getting this done. It should be the General Assembly’s job to fix this, not the court.”