Redistricting Commission Chooses New Member from Lynchburg Area
The Virginia Redistricting Committee voted July 19 to fill a vacant seat on the commission by naming Virginia Trost-Thornton of Forest to replace Marvin Gilliam as a Republican citizen member, and moved forward on hiring a consultant to manage its communications and outreach to the public. The commission also tentatively set its next meeting for Tuesday August 3 at 4 p.m., working around the schedule of the General Assembly’s special session and its own schedule of public hearings.
Trost-Thornton, a lawyer and trained chemist from Forest, near Lynchburg, who is of Hispanic ethnicity, was chosen from a list of 12 persons who had been nominated by Sen. Minority Leader Tommy Norment last January and who were still willing to serve. The commission’s original citizen members were appointed by a panel of five retired appeals court judges, but it fell to the commission itself to fill the vacancy; the appointment of a new Republican member required the support of at least one Democratic member.
At the outset of the meeting, Mackenzie Babichenko, the commission’s Republican co-chair, said that she and her Democratic counterpart, Greta Harris, had reached out informally to other commissioners to see which candidates had the most support. She said that Trost-Thornton and one other nominee, Jeff Bolander from McGaheysville, had been suggested by more than one of the members they were able to consult. Bolander, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and Defense Department employee, was a member of the Rockingham County Republican Committee when he submitted his application.
Harris began by nominating Trost-Thornton. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) then introduced a substitute motion to nominate Bolander, noting that the commission had no member from the I-81 corridor. Bolander lives in what is designated as the “Valley” on the regional maps used by the commission while Trost-Thornton’s hometown is in the “West Central” region. During the discussion, several members supported appointing a member from the southwestern part of the state, as close as possible to where Gilliam had lived. Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) said he felt it was important to have someone from that part of the state because that was where the state’s population was declining the most, and many of those districts would need to be redrawn and consolidated.
Responding to the regional concerns, Harris noted that while she now lives in Richmond, she was born in Danville. She said that “while I think we want the most inclusive body that we can, I think each of us in our selection has been charged with representing the entire state.”
Last January, Bolander’s name was submitted by both Norment and House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert. As the judges considered names, his was, at one point, put forward by all five of the judges as they reviewed the lists submitted by the General Assembly’s party leaders, but was passed over when the final slate of members was put together. Trost-Thornton’s name was on the short list of one of the judges who reviewed the applicants.
The motion to appoint Bolander was approved by a vote of 7-5, with abstentions by two Democratic members. But he failed to get the majority of the commission that Division of Legislative Services staff members explained was needed in this case. Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria) provided the Democratic vote that would have been needed; Republican citizen member Jose Feliciano voted against appointing Bolander.
The commission then considered the motion to appoint Trost-Thornton. It was approved, 13-0, with the same two Democratic members, citizen member James Abrenio and Del. Marcus Simon of Falls Church, again abstaining. (Abrenio, who said he was on his honeymoon, participated by phone along with four other commissioners. With the lifting of emergency restrictions associated with the pandemic, the commission is now required to have an in-person quorum when it makes a decision.)
Richard Harrell, the Republican co-chair of the commission’s Public Engagement Subcommittee, reported that the subcommittee had received one response to its RFP for communications and engagement help. He said he and Abrenio, the other co-chair, had polled subcommittee members and recommended that a two-person team negotiate with the firms that submitted the bid because the firms seemed “very capable” and their proposal was responsive to the RFP. The submitted proposal has not yet been posted on the commission’s website, but Harrell said it was submitted by two companies, “Meeks Consulting and Access Point.”
Meeks Consulting appears to be a Virginia Beach public relations and outreach firm owned by Esmel Meeks. According to his Linked In profile, he also works as a business development executive with The McDonnell Group, a consulting group started by former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. Access Point appears to be a company based in Virginia Beach, owned by Michael and Mindy Carlin, with communications and public relations experience and connections to a number of organizations in the Commonwealth.
Babichenko reported that she and Simon have been negotiating with the Democratic-leaning law firms that submitted bids to provide legal services, and that Harris and Sen. Steve Newman (R-Forest) have been negotiating with the firms that had joined forces on the Republican side. Reporting on the talks with the Republican firms, Harris said, “There was great interest in having a reduction [in the hourly fee] and a singular hourly rate for different staff providing the services.” Newman reported that the firm had adjusted its “senior member number” and the “junior member number came down extraordinarily.”
Commission members appeared to acknowledge that they are running out of time to make important decisions before the Census data arrives in mid-August, starting the clock on the 45 days they have in which to draw their maps.
Harris said she and Babichenko were working on a draft statement of the commission’s “values and priorities,” and hoped that commission members could provide feedback so that it could be approved at their next meeting. But Simon observed that most of the priorities were already established in the Constitution and the Virginia code, and “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do about it.”
Two key issues were discussed but not resolved: who draws the maps and how to deal with the addresses of incumbents, which the General Assembly voted last year to include in the information provided to the commission.
Simon suggested the commission might not want to have legislators involved at all in drawing the maps. “Let the citizens send us maps or have the map drawers do the heavy lifting, and then we can do the quality check.”
Babichenko said she wanted legislators involved, and that she, too, wanted “to intensely participate. I know that people feel differently. I want to be standing there watching. I want to be very involved, rather than outsourcing it, and sending it back to me with somebody else making the decisions.” Babichenko added that “if we don’t have the incumbents on the map, that takes out a lot of the potential issues.” The commission can “look at the very end, and then legislators can act as citizens.”
She said that “we will discuss all of this with the attorneys. They’ve done this before, I haven’t. Maybe certain things have worked in the past, but maybe others haven’t. What was useful? What was efficient? What seemed more fair?”
“If legal counsel says to ‘boot all the legislators out,’ we can talk about that more,” she said, “but I suspect that is not what they are going to say.”
Abrenio said he thought using incumbent addresses “is a big concern.” But Barker noted that General Assembly members know their own addresses and where their colleagues are from, at least generally. “So it would be impossible for us to say we don’t know where other legislators live.” Barker said that “the other thing that is important is that at the end of the process, we have placed a lot of districts where there are two Republicans or two Democrats in a district. In the past, it has not been unusual for three members to be in the same district.” He seemed to suggest that one of the commission’s goals should be to avoid putting incumbents in the same district.
The commission is also facing time pressures if it wants to bring on a consultant to help with map-drawing. It was noted that both legal counsels had worked with professional mapmakers, and their consultants could be used without the need for a separate RFP.
Abrenio said he appreciated “the need for speed,” but expressed concern about avoiding an RFP. He said he wanted to have map drawers involved, but did not want the process to move so fast that there was “a lack of transparency.” But Simon, who has been negotiating with the Democratic law firms, said that should not be a worry. “At some point, it will be out there and will be visible. We’ll wind up with map drawers that both parties will be comfortable with.”
Sean Kumar, a Democratic citizen member, urged the commission to begin blocking out time on calendars so members could know when they would have to make themselves available. Kumar recently participated in a meeting from Japan, where he was on reserve duty. This led to some discussion, but no resolution, on how best for commissioners to work on maps, whether they should use evenly divided subcommittees as they had done for some of their earlier issues, or perhaps smaller groups of commissioners. DLS staff explained that any gathering of three or more commissioners was considered a public meeting, requiring advance notice and that it be open to the public.
The commission also acknowledged that under its normal schedule, it would next be scheduled to meet the day the General Assembly’s special session was supposed to start. After some discussion, it agreed to set its next meeting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday August 3, when it is scheduled to hold its final in-person public hearing of this round of hearings. That hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. in Richmond that day, and the commission’s legislative members who are involved with the budgeting process said they felt they could make the afternoon meeting time before the hearing.
Recognizing that they expected they would have to deliver their legislative maps to the General Assembly by September 30, the commission also discussed setting aside three days between its last public hearing on September 25 and that deadline. The September round of hearings are designed to solicit comments on the commission’s proposed maps; the map for congressional districts is due 15 days after the legislative maps are due.
When the time for public comments arrived, four commissioners participating by phone said they had to leave, and one legislator at the meeting also departed. Comments were made by Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, and Chris DeRosa, representing the League of Women Voters of Virginia. White urged the commission to seek a team of non-partisan map drawers, because, she said, “if you hire partisan map drawers, that will result in two sets of maps.”
DeRosa pointed out that the statutes do not specify the priority of the redistricting criteria, and that the commission needed to do that soon. She also urged the commission to “start from scratch as you draw the maps, rather than using current maps and tweaking them here and there.” She also urged the commission to try to ignore incumbents’ addresses. She pointed out that in 2015, 90 of the 91 incumbent delegates who sought re-election won their races; more than half of them had no general election opponent. “Voters want to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” she asserted.
DeRosa also read a comment provided by Janet Martin of Fairfax, detailing a problem with accessing the commission’s new website with the Foxfire browser.
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church