The full Virginia Redistricting Commission met virtually on Monday, June 7 to hear reports and act on recommendations from the two subcommittees – Citizen Engagement and Budget and Finance.
Votes were unanimously in favor (15 – 0) of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee’s recommendation to hire a Communication and Outreach Coordinator and approve the Request for Proposal (RFP) for that position with allowance for procedural adjustments by DLS staff. When attention turned, however, to hiring legal counsel, the discussion was much more divided and described by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) as the “first real test” of the Commission.
On June 2, the Budget and Finance Subcommittee had voted 5-3 to recommend the commission issue two RFPs to hire legal counsel identified with each of the major political parties. The debate continued in Monday’s full commission with Democratic citizen members James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins joining in support of the less partisan approach of hiring a single counsel. Sean Kumar actually attended by Zoom while in Japan with the U.S. Army Reserve. Speaking for the first time on the topic, Abrenio said “It’s hard to understand why it would be difficult to just put out an RFP. A good attorney can identify issues from left and right. I would rather have one very good attorney who has a complete understanding rather than two different purely partisan attorneys. This is a big decision. Why not investigate?” (For more full debate on hiring counsel, see the June 2 Blog.)
Despite testimony from citizens (see below), those advocating for one nonpartisan counsel did not have enough support to outweigh the ten commission members who were strongly in favor of hiring two counsels – one Democrat and one Republican. Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) expressed concern that he “didn’t want to start down a path where there is unease with the attorney if just one.” Republican citizen Richard Harrell added “We are not a nonpartisan commission. We are bipartisan. If I am to be informed, I need to have the best advice of the best Republican and the best Democrat attorney because they are most likely to give me the best information. (The “client” is the full Commission, not the two parties.) Republican citizen Jose Feliciano commented for the first time – “The bottom line is simple. This is a bipartisan commission. It makes sense to have a lawyer from each. We will not find the “unicorn.” (One nonpartisan lawyer capable of fairly representing the full commission.) “It may make us feel good, but reality is reality.”
In a series of votes (10 – 4), the full commission voted (10 -4) against searching for nonpartisan counsel, choosing instead to issue two RFPs to select one Democratic firm and one Republican firm. Democratic Senators Mamie Locke (D – Hampton) and George Barker voted with the eight Republican commissioners.
Delegate Marcus Simon (D – Falls Church) continued to vote as he had in committee with the three Democratic citizen commissioners – Kumar, Abrenio and Hutchins. Commission Co-chair Greta Harris had earlier voiced support for an extra RFP for nonpartisan counsel, but she was not able to vote due to having to make a plane flight. Delegate Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) was present earlier but not for the votes because she had another meeting to attend.