by Ben Litchfield
There’s an old animal fable of a scorpion that asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog refuses fearing that the scorpion will sting it. The scorpion then pleads with the frog, arguing that stinging the frog would doom them both. The frog relents, agreeing to help the scorpion across the river, and letting it ride on the frog’s back. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog and they both die. With his dying breath, the frog asks why the scorpion stung it and the scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
I am reminded of that story reading about the recent disbandment of the Virginia Redistricting Commission. The Democratic members compromised and compromised but, finally, three citizen members walked out when faced with constant Republican intransigence. They could not agree on who would draw the maps, or what maps to present to the public, or whether to consider race when drawing maps to provide communities of color with opportunities to elect legislators that represent their interests. Nothing. Just a bunch of 8-8 votes and a lot of wasted time.
I applaud the members who, in good faith, went down to Richmond and did the hard work of trying to draw compact maps that preserved communities of interest and provided opportunities for greater representation for communities of color. That’s no small feat and they did it with a professionalism that we all can be proud of throughout the Commonwealth. But not everyone bargained in good faith. I think Chair Harris hit the nail on the head today when she called that fact to our attention. The Republicans had no interest in compromising.
And, at the end of all of this, it looks like the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw the legislative maps. Like all residents of the Commonwealth, I hope they do a fair job picking up where the Redistricting Commission left off. As a “designated party official,” as one of my friends called me awhile ago, I am skeptical that a mostly Republican Supreme Court will draw a “fair” map but I am willing to suspend my disbelief. I have been surprised by courts before – like when conservative Neil Gorsuch penned the pro-LGBTQ+ opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County.
To its credit, I think the Supreme Court of Virginia will adhere much closer to principle than some of the legislators and citizen members of the Redistrict Commission. Unlike politicians, who are comfortable with raw displays of political power, courts are more “small ‘c’” conservative. They derive their legitimacy from the willingness of people to follow their rulings. So, they are more concerned with things like appearing “fair” than the legislative or executive branches. At least, that’s what they tell us in history class.
I opposed the redistricting amendment because I thought it was undemocratic – “little ‘d’”. It consolidated too much political power in the hands of the legislative members, gave party honchos too much say in which citizen members got appointed, and lacked transparency. It is crass to say ‘I told you so’ – so I won’t – but it does look like those fears were realized. The legislative members tried to railroad the citizen members. Some of the citizen members showed their partisan stripes like I thought they would.
And the public comment process was a mess. Announcements were made on cooking show channels, very few members of the public commented, and, when they did, they did not have a unified map that they could comment on. At the end of the day, it was chaos. I suppose you could say that all new organizations are chaotic and this is the newest of the new. But when you’re talking about something as essential as political representation – of voting rights – we have a duty to get it right the first time. It’s probably the most important duty we have.
“Good enough” wasn’t good enough and I hope we can all see that now. The Redistricting Commission needs to work. I think most of us are committed to making it work. That’s why I think the General Assembly should study its failures (and successes) and propose an amendment modifying the body. Personally, I think an independent citizen commission composed of individuals appointed by the Governor with consent of the Virginia Senate makes the most sense. The Governor, after all, represents all of us – not just some regional faction.
I hope we can also look past this naïve view that just because something is bipartisan or a compromise that it is inherently better. During all the debate over the redistricting amendment, I heard people say that just bringing Republicans and Democrats to the table, that they’d reason together and come to a compromise solution that works for everyone. But, sometimes, compromise is not what is fair. Sometimes, the person that you’re working with has no interest in compromise. It’s a cold dose of realism but that’s the truth of the matter.
Not everyone is an honest broker. Just look at what actually happened – Democrats compromised and compromised. But, at the end of the day, Republicans only wanted to consider Republican maps. Delegate Marcus Simon, as an olive branch, proposed to look at a Republican House map and a Democratic Senate map. That motion died 8-8. Clearly, just bringing Republicans and Democrats to the table did not force them to compromise. In the modern Trump Party, compromise is a vice, not a virtue. The Republican Party of John McCain is long dead.
Make no mistake, the Republicans played a winner-take-all game in Richmond. And we all lost. I suppose if we asked them why, they’d give some convoluted answer about fairness or transparency but I think we all know the truth – in the modern Trump Party, it’s their nature.