Commission Attempts to Move Forward After Public Hearings

The Virginia Redistricting Commission meeting on Friday, October 8 began with anticipation as Commissioners met to consider public comments from four days of hearings.  Presiding Co-chair Greta Harris indicated they would have a dialog around correspondence from several legislators; and come to agreement on data and definitions; with the bulk of the day and evening trying to get to a single map for the House and another for the Senate.

The first hour of public comments had some technical issues and confusion from citizens who thought they would be listening not testifying. Harris thanked them and indicated the Commission would check back later in the day to provide further opportunity to comment for those who had signed up.   She was grateful for the hundreds of pages of comments from the past week.

The meeting then continued for the morning with Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax) explaining a memorandum he had sent commissioners the night before and subsequent discussion with the legal counsels about minority districts.  As attention turned to reviewing the draft maps, some were caught off guard when they learned a new map (B5) had been posted to the Commission website.  Republican commissioners refused to consider B5 without personally having more time to review it and Democrats said it made no sense to return to B4 and repeat the changes that have already been made in B5.

Our coverage of the October 8 meeting continues with a separate post, “Meeting Ends Abruptly as Three Citizen Commissioners Leave Room.”


Following the public comments, Co-chair Harris announced that she had received emails from Sen. Barker, Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) and Moon Duchin of Tufts University which they would share with everyone and provide on the Commission website.  Sen. Barker said his memorandum goes to the question of defining “minority-coalition” and “minority-opportunity” districts and whether it will have an influence on how they approach integration of the maps.  Democrats’ counsel, Dr. Kareem Crayton, responded in writing (in yellow).  Republican counsel Bryan Tyson who had also received the email last night had prepared verbal, not written responses.  Sen. Barker said the Commission had spent a great deal of time on the issue and he had requested it be determined if they could create a 6th minority-majority district in the greater Richmond and Chesterfield area.

After considerable back-and-forth with points made by each of the lawyers, there was some agreement but still major differences on how racial data can be used and if evidence of “political effectiveness” should be included as a factor.  Dr Crayton mentioned that majority single race districts are but one way to measure opportunity and they should look at the totality of coalition districts and opportunity districts as well. They also described which Commission discussions could lead to a court decision that “race predominated.” Citizen commissioner Sean Kumar suggested when trying to decide on when it is appropriate to make race a factor, a decision tree could help build consensus.

 James Abrenio reminded the commissioners this is a starting point to orient discussion.  “The public spoke out against incumbency, but this still has to get through the legislature.  We should give priority to minority districts over incumbency. “

Dr. Crayton mentioned the starting number for majority-minority districts in the Senate maps had been three due to population changes but now the numbers are the same, five in both A and B maps.  Republican Counsel Bryan Tyson and Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko expressed surprise that there was a new plan.  Co-chair Harris said it had not been posted yet and there were immediate questions from Democratic citizen commissioner James Abrenio and Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) as to “where is it coming from?”  Co-chair Harris answered, “We have a multitude of plans.”  Citizen commissioner Sean Kumar said, “We care about openness and need to see the maps to be able to make decisions.”

Dr. Crayton explained, “I asked whether to stick with plans that were submitted.  I understood we would take the week and try to come up with a plan based on consensus. We have to look at the whole picture.” Republican citizen commissioner Jose Feliciano commented, “If you remember, we didn’t discuss John Morgan’s map which was put up after the end of the meeting.  Is this map now, the counter one to John’s?”

Co-chair Harris said, “People wanted us to be fair, to have compact districts, to have districts that hold communities together, to have population deviation within the range of law.  Both maps do a really good job of it.  There is general agreement that the variety of maps are better than current maps.

We are spending a lot of time and heartache, trying to get legal and moral clarity as to what Virginians want to do.”  She suggested using Kumar’s decision tree specifically re race.  “We will have no single map unless we have clarity on how to address communities of color.  It is a sticking point.  Counsel and the map drawers have two different perspectives.  Majority-minority districts are clearly defined by the courts.  If we can get to consensus on coalition districts, we could begin to knit maps together.”

Over a break, DLS posted two new maps from the Democratic map drawers – B7 (House) and B5 (Senate). Dr. Crayton explained, “We viewed the process to be one to continue to harmonize to get a map that sits somewhere in the middle.  The choices are still the same philosophically.  It shouldn’t come down to which map was submitted when.  We misunderstood and produced more maps.  Let’s not get distracted by other issues.”

Sean Kumar pointed out, “We’re coming close to time.  If we have maps taking us closer to consensus, it’s worth looking at them.  A decision tree could be a tool in addition to the criteria to help identify where it would be permissible to take coalition districts into account.  As we look at the maps, we’ve been moving things around for incumbents.  If we spot a potential to create a minority district, it might be OK as long as we’re not hurting other criteria. Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) disagreed with the concept of a “decision tree.”  “We labored quite a while on the criteria.  Two votes were taken, and we have criteria.  We don’t need a decision tree.”

It was then reported that Republican Del. Todd Gilbert had sent an email to the Commission stating, “Unless and until the public has an opportunity to review an actual map that is being proposed for Commission endorsement, I cannot approve the Commission’s work.”

Citizen commissioner James Abrenio again suggested a coin flip and Co-chair Harris said “There’s no time for delay.  If we can’t get rubber to the road, at least establish a guiding post for talking.  We going to be doing this for the next three hours?  I’m concerned the confusion is designed to be there so we don’t have to start taking votes.” 

Del. Adams recommended “Let’s get the maps up and highlight where there is agreement.” Citizen Kumar said, “We need to get to the work of maps.  We can consider public comments with respect to their area for the maps we draft.” Co-chair Harris again called for a suggestion for a starting point for the House and Senate maps.

Del. Simon said he had watched every single bit of public comments and “I heard generally speaking that they liked the House A7 map and a lot were against the B4 map.  As a starting point, let’s compromise and take the A House map and the B Senate map as the initial canvas and edit them in real time.” 

Co-chair Babichenko asked to hear about changes to A7 and the latest B5 that was just posted so we can harmonize and come to consensus. DLS Meg Lamb suggested John Morgan could explain the Republican A7 and Ken Strasma could show the Democrats B5.

Sen. McDougle then countered, “There’s zero chance I’m going to start from a map that was just presented.”  Democratic map drawer Ken Strasma explained they were not directed by the Commission to make the changes but they felt it was likely to be requested today.  Dr. Crayton said “the intention was to get past places where there is a level of agreement to fine tuning.”  Zach Coomes with the Democratic team mentioned adding one majority-minority district, unifying college campuses such as George Mason University, and changes to the Charlottesville and Fredericksburg districts in response to public comments.  Co-chair Babichenko express concerned they couldn’t see other things that have changed to allow them to do that.  They then shared data on the new and previous maps.

Del. Simon pointed out, “It’s noon.  I understand Sen. McDougle’s concerns. If we start with B4, however, we will need to redo changes already made in B5 and it would be a waste of time.  There has been good progress.  There is not a big partisan advantage for anyone.” Sen. Barker contributed that he has done a political analysis using nine election results for each of 40 districts and he walked through the five most significant changes between B4 and B5. 

Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Kinsale) asked about huge shifts in rural areas such as District 17.  Del Simon said he understood but Northern Virginia seats have also changed dramatically.  “There are big shifts in representation.  All are being treated the same way.”

Citizen commissioner Rick Harrell complained, “Before we left on Saturday, several wanted to hear the changes to that Senate map and we still haven’t heard.”  Co-chair Harris responded, “If you see similarities, both map drawers are trying to represent where there was consensus.  We just need to start going and will flip flop.”  Harrell again interjected, “For two days I’ve tried to hear what John Morgan has done.” Del. Adams supported his call to “hear an explanation on the Senate map we’ve never heard.”

Co-chair Harris then announced they could make a decision as to what would be the most comfortable starting point after a break for lunch.

After returning from lunch, Del. Simon said he would make a motion to use A7 (House) and B5 (Senate) as a starting point. “We’re not voting for more or fewer majority-minority districts or which favors minorities more.  We may end up at end with a different number.  It’s only about where we start.  We‘re not picking favorites.” 

Sen. McDougle then made a substitute motion that “We work on the Senate maps.  Most of the state is similar and Sen. Barker has done a political analysis.  Let’s go through Hampton Road’s differences and work our way up the Peninsula. 

Citizen commissioner Abrenio called for a vote on McDougle’s motion and “let the cards lie where they lie. None of it seems collaborative.  It’s the opposite.”  Harrell seconded McDougle’s substitute motion “to use A5 as the starting point for Senate maps since that was the version presented to the public.”

Del. Simon pointed out, “In the spirit of compromise, my original motion was as a starting place.  Use the Republican House draft, the Democrats in the Senate.  The substitute motion is ‘let’s do both Republican maps as a starting point.’”

Del. McQuinn supported Simon’s motion as a starting point to get beyond the impasse.  “Let’s start moving things down the road.  There are more serious people outside than there are people sitting around this table; this is about all Virginians, people of every walk of life.”  She pleased, “We’ve got to get beyond this.”

When Co-chair Harris called for the vote, Senators McDougle and Stanley tried to interrupt and asked for a recess.  This was ignored and the vote went forward. The substitute motion and original motions each failed along partisan lines 8 – 8.

Co-chair Harris then spoke. “We’re at a point, an impasse.  What the voters wanted at the very beginning was for this to not be partisan.  The maps presented from either side do a better job than the current maps.  We don’t need to continue.  We gave it a shot as a Commission and tried to come together. It is a very complicated process.  I’d almost say we are done.  We have tried to lift up fairness, and recognize Virginia is growing primarily in communities of color and to ensure their voice was counted and valued. Partisanship seeped into the spirit of the Commission by structure and the way the General Assembly put it together.  My recommendations for 2030 are no elected officials on a commission to do this work.  There needs to be an odd number of independents so we can break votes.  Every commissioner needs to take a history class to fully understand why we are fighting so hard.  I think our work is done.  What a shame.”

Sen.  Barker: “I’m not ready to give up.  I would propose a motion to start with the Senate maps and district through district go through each of the two maps.  Then we can figure out the House maps.  I think it’s solvable.”

Sen.  Stanley: “First, I want to thank the co-chairs and everybody on this commission for your passion.  In my eleven years in the Senate, we reached impasses but never gave in and eventually were able to move forward.    I know to those who are not elected officials it seems like a hamster wheel and is frustrating. We want to make Virginia greater and better, understanding our history.  Regions are different, but people are the same.  We have been tasked with this.  I’m not one that just throws in the towel.  In choosing a Pope, there are a lot of tie votes before the white smoke. I still believe the commission has a duty to give the legislature a shot.  It may not seem like progress, that you’ll never break the tie.  Don’t give up.

Citizen commissioner Sean Kumar responded, “Sen. Stanley, your speech is inconsistent with what we’re seeing.  It’s very partisan.  All the Democrats voted to try to start with one map for each side.  I don’t want it to fail – some in here might. It’s one thing to give a speech about how things could work, but you’ve not shown a willingness to compromise on a starting point.  That speech didn’t give us one.  It’s quite disappointing.”

Citizen commissioner Rick Harrell proposed, “There are too many allegations of bad faith.  I would support Sen. Barker’s motion to get somewhere in Senate.  He has been reasonable, an approachable person.  Some of us who are accused of being partisan simply don’t want the process to be slanted.  Let’s try to deal with the Senate, one at a time.”

James Abrenio: “I’m a lawyer first.  These comments are to SCOVA – We’ve made an effort on our side of the aisle to get one map drawer, one attorney. Del. Simon’s motion was voted down along party lines.

My concern is about the politicalization of the courts.  There is a political conservative slant by the justices.  I have respect for our courts.  I hope you look at the record in this case and do what’s right for Virginia. My intent was to protect the voting rights of minorities.  I hope courts understand what’s happening here.  They have a duty to finish what we couldn’t compete.  I’d never want to be involved in this again.  To all activists – I’m sorry we couldn’t get the job done.  This is a loss for me.  I hope SCOVA is listening.”

Sen. Barker: “I still feel optimistic we can get this done.  Let’s start with Senate map – there are fewer districts with no more than five or six with substantive discussion.  It’s solvable and we can come up with a fair balanced map that both can support. “

Co-chair Harris asked, “What’s the starting point for the House?  It’s both or nothing.  I will not ‘kum ba yah’ down the Senate road without knowing about the House starting map.”

Del Simon: “I’m inclined to follow the lead of the citizens commissioners.  I share their frustration. Senator Barker is the primary architect of this commission.  At the end of the process we have to get to a super majority that includes unanimity from legislators and 2/3 of each set of citizens.  I’m hearing from citizens there’s no indication of any room for compromise.  The primrose path that will get us to nowhere.  There literally no movement in our direction.  I prefer we adjourn and come back when we know what we’re doing.”

Sean Kumar: “Let’s take a recess.  Cool off.  This process is about fairness. We’ve seen a fundamental lack of fairness. There’s no inclination or show of good will; nothing to show light at the end of the tunnel.”

Sen. McDougle: “Listening to this conversation bothers me. The solution is not to have votes whenever possible to work out solutions.  Oftentimes it takes conversations and working through processes to get to solutions. Both new versions of the maps make some steps forward.  Seems to me ball is moved forward.  Probably six places where we’d need to make resolutions.  The spirit of compromise is talking about differences.  From my perspective, let’s go through that. The Senate members can continue to have conversations.  I’m willing to stay here and do that.”

Sean Kumar: “Senator McDougle talks about compromise.  That’s what the motion from Del. Simon was – one map from each side but it’s our way or the highway.  I take exception.  It’s not what we see happening.”

Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton): “I do understand your (Harris) frustration.  I started down this road some time ago with having a commission with Sen. Hangar to get away from gerrymandered districts and fair maps.  We abandoned our own opportunity to do that from the very beginning.  James Abrenio is right.  When we couldn’t come to decision on map drawers and attorneys, where does it surprise you.  8/8 votes are partisan.  We’ve gotten to a stalemate and can’t now start talking about let’s hold out the hand of friendship.  Couldn’t get to that point from the beginning.  Every single discussion is partisan.  The African Americans on the Commission have to battle about why that’s important.  Demographics have changed but it’s a battle to have a discussion.  I’m willing to sit here and try to talk about how we can come to terms, but quite frankly I don’t’ see it.  Del. Simon suggested one Republican and one Democratic map.  We couldn’t agree to that.  Quite frankly I’m disgusted.  We abdicated our responsibility from the beginning. 

Citizen commissioner Jose Feliciano – “I didn’t come here to quit.  My problem with the Senate map is we got it today.  There have been no public comments.  I’m not saying I dislike it.”

Co-chair Harris recommended a five-minute recess “to see if we have a path forward.”

Del. McQuinn asked, “Would it be a complete injustice to the process for us to just call it a day and come back?”  DLS attorney Meg Lamb said she is hearing concerns about the B5 map just being presented today and suggested, “Would the B4 be better?” 

Kumar – “I trust both sets of counsel and map drawers are trying to move us toward compromise and not away from it.  They could use the recess for Republican counsel to see how they feel and get comfortable with either B4 or B5 during the recess.”

As they recessed at 2:08 p.m., DLS Lamb reminded them that during a break, three would be a meeting.

This summary of the October 8 meeting continues in a separate post, “Meeting Ends Abruptly as Three Citizen Commissioners Leave Room.”

LWV-VA Observer Corps –

Candy Butler, LWV-FX
Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR
Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL
Peggy Layne, LWV-MC

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