Black Voices Heard at August 3 Public Hearing on Central Region

The fourth and last in-person public hearing focused on the Central Region and was held at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond on Tuesday, August 3.  A variety of Virginians spoke to the Commission – 13 of the 16 Commissioners were in attendance, including the newest Commissioner, Virginia Trost-Thornton.  In addition, two Commissioners attended virtually.

During the hour-long public hearing, 17 speakers addressed the Commission in person, while six more spoke virtually.    

Chris DeRosa (Arlington) spoke first, setting the tone of the hearing by sharing quotes compiled by Sara Fitzgerald (Falls Church) and Candace Butler (Fairfax).  The quotes were from the applications submitted by three of the citizen Commissioners, both Republican and Democrat.  One Commissioner wrote of his belief that extreme partisan gerrymandering contributed significantly to “increasing political polarization”, and that “artificially creating districts in a convoluted and discriminating manner avoids the operation of natural communities of interest, and, in many cases, prevents minorities from ever having an effective voice.”  Another Commissioner wrote, “I want. . . to ensure that every voice and every vote counts and is not negated by gerrymandered lines that silence ideas and concerns”, while a third wrote, “Redistricting to ensure fair and representative districts is fundamental to good government and trusted institutions in our Commonwealth. The Commission will help to draw the foundation of representative government in Virginia for the next decade.”  With that inspiration, the public hearings continued. 

This was the first public hearing which featured several speakers from the black and brown communities.  Several members of the NBNRO (National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization), led by Phil Thompson and Mike Futrell, addressed the Commission.  Thompson stated that “Black and minority communities matter.”  He and Futrell cited the early opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus which doubted that this process and this commission could truly represent the interests of black and minority voters.  Futrell, a former Delegate from Prince William County, recalled receiving the advice to “vote your conscience, vote your district, and then worry about voting your party.”  He recalled how, at first, there were few applicants, that “nobody looked like us” for the citizen commissioner seats, that the applicants didn’t represent the black and brown community.  Only after outreach efforts of the NBNRO, One Virginia 2021, and the League of Women Voters, did the number of applicants increase to more than 1,200.  “Well, we have a seat at the table, now it’s time to start setting the menu.”  He admonished the Commission to reach more Virginians.  He’s frustrated that “the only people that look like me coming to these events are the ones we’re reaching out. When you draw those lines, I want you to see the faces of the people that are going to be impacted by the decisions that you make.” “It’s not about Democrats or Republicans.  Do what’s best for the Commonwealth for Virginia.”  “Make sure that every voice is heard in this process.” 

  • Katina Moss emphasized that it is the firm belief of NBNRO “that fair districts empower black and brown districts.” “Redistricting therefore is politics. … How will this bipartisan commission support people over party?  After all, isn’t politics supposed to serve the people?”
  • Taorise Marks, a military veteran and leader in the Chesterfield County NAACP, brought his young son, Asiris, with him. He voted for the Constitutional Amendment but would have liked to have seen more people that look like him on the Commission. He wanted to see and hear from the Kroger baggers, sanitation workers, some of our everyday people, and said their “voices continue to be muted.” He said that in 10 years, Asiris will be able to vote.  “He’s going to be standing tall to represent this country proudly.  Ensure his sacrifice matters, his vote matters.  All we want is fairness. Fairness in drawing the maps.  Fairness for the people who are not represented here today. And especially for black and brown voices.” 
  • Lois McCray supported all the previous speakers and asked that veterans’ interests be addressed. “Black lives matter.  Brown lives matter.  Your lives matter.”  “We don’t want anything more than anybody else. We want maps to be drawn fairly so we can all live in a better world and not feel that we are being mistreated.  Draw fair lines so there can be fair maps and fair voting and we can all sleep peacefully at night.  Like my mom always says, “It’s just nice to be nice.”

Liz White, director of One Virginia 2021 and a Chesterfield County resident, appealed to the public to communicate with the Commission.  She reminded all that “Communities of Interest (COIs) are not only legally mandated, but also best practice nationwide.”  She noted that half of the comments have centered around COIs, especially cities and towns. She spoke to Virginians and encouraged them to participate in this process.  “No one knows your community like you.  They can’t honor a COI if they don’t know about it.  Please make sure your community is part of this conversation.  There are a variety of ways on the One Virginia 2021 website to make it as easy as possible.  This is an unprecedented space for the public, for us.  Fill that space – let the Commissioners know.”

Other speakers described their communities and asked the Commissioners to do their best to create fair maps. Several mentioned the 21 “planning districts” which are already established within Virginia.  Find out more about Planning District Commissions here.

  • Kay Slaughter of Charlottesville asked the Commission to reject political considerations.   She suggested utilizing the 21 planning district boundaries which have already been established, and to exclude incumbent addresses when drawing maps, a request that has been expressed by many Virginians over the past four weeks.
  • Four women from Fredericksburg addressed the Commissioners, 3 in-person, one virtually.  They asked that the city of Fredericksburg, including the campus of the University of Mary Washington, be contained within a single House district and a single Senate district.   Professor Sarah Dewees, University of Mary Washington, speaking on behalf of her students, noted that their campus is divided down the middle into the 28th and 88th House districts, and that this confuses students during voter registration drives.  Nancy Collins and Sabina Weitzman also asked that Fredericksburg  zip code 22401, not be divided.  “Make sure each district you create reflects the sense of place that people inside the boundaries recognize…”  Later, Tina Pruett thanked the Commission for the privilege of participating in the redistricting process.  Her community lies along Route 3, east of 610.  They share services and interests with the rest of the city of Fredericksburg, including the University.  She asked that the maps “include the outer fringes with the core of the city.”    “Take a fresh approach, throw out the old, start with the new.  Don’t consider the addresses of incumbents.  We trust you to do your best and listen to the people.  I’m glad that Virginia has taken this step in what I believe is the right direction.”
  • Jean Gannon lives in Powhatan County, 40 miles west of Richmond.  She expressed her “sincere hope that you can assure the citizens that maps have been drawn for the interest of citizens and not to the benefit of partisan agendas.”  She asked that they respect the Voting Rights Act of 1965, especially Section 5, which addresses majority minority districts.  She asked for districts that live up to the “one person one vote” ideal.  
  • Bryan Horn of Henrico County asked the Commission to work hard to not split localities and to maintain compactness and contiguity.  He said it is confusing to voters who do not know who their legislators are.  He cited Henrico’s three House of Delegate districts, one of which is a split precinct.
  • Nancy Finch of Chesterfield was “really distressed that the lone member resigned and that the replacement, while dedicated and interested, is from Forest.  That means the entire southwest area of Virginia is not represented on this Commission.  “Nothing can be done now, but make sure that you all consider Southwest when you draw the lines.”  She agreed with previous speakers, that COIs, “despite the writer in Sunday’s paper” – “we know one when we see one.”
  • Rolf Breun of Charlottesville asked for House District 58 to be better drawn.  Currently it runs from “Scottsville thru Fluvanna, crossing 4 counties in a snakelike path.”
  • Elly Tucker from Charlottesville, said her House and Senate districts were “fairly drawn,” but that Congressional District 5 “wasn’t redistricted; it was gerrymandered.”  “Today I ask for fairer maps for our area and indeed the whole state.  Start fresh. Scrap the old maps.  Make them contiguous, compact, and competitive, and keep Communities of Interest together.”
  • Elaine Freeland lives with her husband in Lake of the Woods in rural Orange County.  She said they were lucky that their community is included entirely within the 30th HD, 17th SD, and 7th CD.   She asked, “What is fair about splitting COIs, including precincts?  Diluting minority votes is gerrymandering.   Fair districting assures each Virginian that their vote is important.”  She thanked the Commission for taking on this “incredible task” and wished them success.  
  • Frances Lee-Vandell of Albemarle County was enthusiastic, declaring, “This is a momentous occasion for me!  I have lived in Virginia over 70 years!” Her county is included within a district that extends beyond the mountains.  She lives “on the other side of the mountain from most of her state representatives.”  She asks the Commissioners pay attention to “planning districts that better represent our areas.”
  •  A unique perspective was offered by Roger Schweikert of Greene County. He noted the historical basis of our democracy and suggested that “if you teach a man his rights, you have a revolution.  If you teach a man his responsibilities, you have a revival.” He suggested that limiting the # of Senate seats to 40 and the Delegate districts to 100 is artificial.  He recommended reducing the population contained within each state district by approximately half.  He also mentioned the national electoral college and increasing the number of Congressional districts nationwide, two topics which are not the responsibility of this Commission.
  • Richard Zimmerman, a retired teacher from Chesapeake, offered descriptions of different Congressional districts that he created, using precinct overlays, elementary school districts, and census blocks.
  • Betsy Smith of Forest, VA, congratulated Virginia Trost-Thornton on her appointment to the Commission.  She described the growth of her community which has changed from rural or suburban.  She echoed others as she asked the Commissioners to “do the best for our communities.”

The final public hearing will begin at 6 pm on Thursday, August 5.  This hearing will be virtual and will focus on the residents of the Valley Region.

The census data is expected on August 16.  Once it arrives, the 45-day countdown clock will begin ticking.  Maps for House of Delegates and State Senate districts must be presented to the General Assembly by September 30.  Congressional maps are due 15 days later.

— Chris DeRosa, LWV-Arlington

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