About a year ago a small group convened to investigate the possibility of revitalizing the issue of redistricting. They believe that the in-state legislative districts belong to the citizens of the Commonwealth; not to any legislator, political party, or special interest. They are fighting for an independent commission on redistricting.
The core issue that underlies the dysfunction, gridlock, and disrespect in Richmond is the current redistricting process where the Party in power, Democratic or Republican, goes behind closed doors, chooses its own criteria, and draws maps where they actually choose their voters rather than allowing citizens to choose their elected officials. It is the deliberate manipulation of district lines for political power. As a result, we live the fifth most gerrymandered state in the Union.
“Look at the last General Election. The difference separating Ed Gillespie and Senator Warner was less than one percentage point. We arguably live in a purple state. But the closest Congressional District in the state was 16 points. There is no doubt to the outcomes. At the local level that means there is a disincentive for state legislators to debate ideas to find solutions and work together on the issues.” – former Delegate Shannon Valentine
81 seats in the House of Delegates are completely safe; the remaining 19 are considered somewhat competitive but rarely feature an opposing major party candidate. There might be 10 races where there is a doubt about the outcome and maybe two seats change out each election.
59 localities in the House districts are divided. 46 of 40 in the state Senate are divided meaning they are divided more than once. Culpepper residents, for instance, are represented by three different Senators. In Lynchburg there are 72,000 households and there are four different ballots required.
Since the February 2014 launch of One Virginia 2021; Virginians for Fair Redistricting the group has built an organization with a foundation and a public policy council. They are committed to being multi-partisan. 40% of Virginians consider themselves independent. There is a member of the Tea Party Executive Committee on the policy council. All of them know what is at stake with redistricting. Shannon Valentine is one of many disciples crisscrossing the state encouraging redistricting reform.
Typically redistricting is done following the census. During each legislative session that precedes redistricting a number of bills and constitutional amendments are proposed to in an effort to abate gerrymandering. Then a small group of legislative colleagues get together in the smallest room they can find, convene a tiny subcommittee (which rarely gets a recorded vote) and vote against them all. Afterwards they pray that interest wanes for another 10 years.
It was (my) first week (in the legislature) and I was riding up in an elevator with a Republican from the Eastern Shore. He said, “Shannon I’d like to share with you some words of wisdom that were shared with me when I was first elected.” And he said, “For the first two weeks you are gonna wonder how you got here. And then, for the rest of your life, you’re gonna wonder how they got here.”
Valentine says that in her travels all over Virginia promoting nonpartisan redistricting she has noted two very clear observations. First, citizens actually do understand what is at stake. They know the major issues: an aging population, jobs, no-excuse legislation, healthcare, and education. Next, they know that we are either unwilling or unable to address them. What they don’t understand is the gridlock and our inability to make decisions; they have concluded that there is nothing they can do.
“It is a fact that we in Virginia may outperform North Carolina on a standardized test, but the truth is we are falling behind in the world.
One Virginia 2021 has been covered in many major newspapers; mostly editorials. They have been invited to speak in about 40 localities. 11 cities have passed resolutions in support of redistricting reform. There is a statewide student initiative with a student leader at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The effort counts 5,000 supporters and has launched a statewide petition. Their Facebook page has over a thousand “Likes.” Valentine argues that they are building momentum in Virginia.
Typically somebody will raise their hand and say, “Shannon, I really think this is the right thing to do. But it will never happen in Virginia.” I say that I think it is the right thing to do too. And, I also had my doubts.
Two things changed her mind. The first was after she was speaking in Roanoke at a town hall meeting. She noticed an elderly gentleman in the second row. Going over to shake his hand and thank him for coming, he introduced himself. “Hi, my name is Zig. I am 92 years old and I am not going to live until 2021. But I am going to give you $50 every month until I die because I believe this is that important to our Commonwealth.” Having worked on a lot of issues and in many campaigns, this felt very different to Valentine. Then she began to consider how many times in her public life that she has been told, “This will never happen.”
Remembering back to 2004 when Mark Warner was trying to get the tax increase through the General Assembly, he needed 16 Republican votes in the House of Delegates. Everyone said it would never happen. Preston Bryant, a Republican from Lynchburg, led the effort and they did get those 16 votes and it did pass. That was one of the key reasons Virginia vaulted to the top of the list of best managed states in the country.
I was told I would never get an Amtrak train anchored in Lynchburg. It would never happen. And it did happen. In October of 2009 that rail service was launched and is today the most profitable rail service in the United States.
She also points to the smoking ban in restaurants as an example of something that would never happen. When, she argues, Republicans, Democrats, and independents come together, things do happen.
What will make this different than what happened in 2009? First, it is not an effort focused in Richmond. They are building a grassroots campaign that was launched in Charlottesville and has spread across Virginia with regional Chairs. Next, it is a long way to 2019. Third, they are doing everything they can to educate the electorate that they government they have is a direct result of redistricting. This includes a developing a curriculum that can be presented in schools.
One key initiative will be a documentary on the line of “The Road to Redistricting Reform in Virginia.” They intend to record and monitor the process and progress of all the redistricting bills that come forward this year, the votes, and what legislators say. This might prove a challenge. Countless times you hear candidates and legislators say they would love to vote for something “if only…” Are they going to be willing to speak on camera? Will they be willing to have their votes recorded in one of those closet subcommittee hearings?
In 2009 I had a number of bills rolled into my redistricting bill. The hearing was Tuesday at 8:30 in the morning. We had everyone coming: Virginia League of Women Voters, the TV networks, reporters coming at 8:30…and at ten o’clock Friday night it was announced through the LIS system that the meeting was changed to Monday at 6:30 am on Martin Luther King Day. Nobody really believes you when you tell these things, but that would be recorded. If people knew the process that takes place, I don’t think they’d believe it, but it’s the truth.
The passive aggressive legislative strategy centers around not having any questions asked. Senator John Miller offered a referendum bill last session. It proposed creating an advisory independent commission on redistricting and it passed the Senate subcommittee, full committee, and three floor votes before going over to the House. There in subcommittee, it took 90 seconds to kill. Not one question. This year, that would be recorded.
There are two things legislators fear: losing an election and being recorded on the wrong side of history…not being on the wrong side…being recorded on the wrong side.
This will disappoint some who believe gerrymandering is the sole reason Republicans own the legislature: redistricting will not immediately or dramatically change the numerical representation of political parties in the state legislature. What will happen is that the districts will be far less polarized. Delegates and Senators would have to show up at debates. Candidates who pander to bizarre flights of fancy would be marginalized rather than marginalizing sizable portions of the electorate. Maybe that will change the tone of campaigns and affect cooperation in the legislature one day.