Va. redistricting deal protects incumbents and punishes challengers, critics say

April 2, 2011

A decade ago, the last time Virginia embarked on redrawing boundaries for its legislative districts, lawmakers created maps that protected incumbents and punished challengers, leading observers to complain that the process lacked outside input.

This year, despite the appointment of a bipartisan commission to advise legislators, the lines were largely drawn by two men: Sen. George L. Barker (D), a health-care planner from Prince William County, and Rep. S. Chris Jones (R), a pharmacist from Suffolk.

The pair were part of a small cadre of legislators who worked quietly to draw the maps with input primarily from the majority party in each house. Fewer than 10 of the state’s 140 legislators were privy to the lines before they were made public last week, according to lawmakers and aides.

The General Assembly, which returns to the Capitol on Monday for a special session on redistricting, expects to approve the proposed maps with few alterations and within days.

The Republican-led House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled Senate have already agreed to vote for their own plans, and then each other’s, as part of a deal between the chamber’s leaders.

The result? Lines that protect incumbents and punish challengers, observers say.

“It’s horrific,’’ said C. Douglas Smith, director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and chairman of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition, which advocates changing the process. “Redistricting has always happened with only a few people knowing. It shouldn’t surprise us, but should disappoint us.”

The maps introduced last week are supposed to reflect population shifts over the past 10 years, particularly in Northern Virginia's booming outer suburbs, while keeping communities of interest together.

Instead, the Senate has proposed stretching one district from North Carolina to Maryland, accessible only by boat. It also recommends splitting Virginia Beach four ways.

The House, meanwhile, has proposed combining the bustling Northern Virginia suburbs of Loudoun County, including Leesburg, with rural areas of the Shenandoah Valley, into one district. It also recommends splitting Martinsville three ways.

This year, for the first time, about 150 students from 13 Virginia colleges drew legislative maps in a contest that aimed to show lawmakers examples of compact districts that respect community boundaries. Six groups won cash prizes in the contest.

Legislators who drew the House and Senate maps say they glanced at the students’ efforts but that they arrived too late to get a serious look. Still, advocates continue to lobby legislators to consider them. “Never in the history of Virginia have we had so many qualified options,’’ Smith said.

Map quest

Barker, a senator from Prince William since 2008, has spent 30 years determining where hospitals and nursing homes should be built in Northern Virginia. He has studied traffic patterns, communities of interest and census data.

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw and Sen. Janet D. Howell, both Democrats from Fairfax County, asked Barker to take a crack at drawing the chamber’s maps.

Barker downloaded Dave’s Redistricting software from the Internet and got to work. The latest population numbers didn’t come out until February, but he began getting familiar with the state using 2008 estimates.

“A lot of types of things that come into play here are similar to what I have been doing for years,’’ said Barker, who until recently worked for Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia.

Jones had only been in the House for three years when then-House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins asked him to draft his chamber’s lines in 2001.

A former mayor, Jones has learned not to let the complaints that come with the job get to him. “My personality fits a task like this,” he said.

In 2001, the first time Republicans were in charge of redistricting, Jones worked with a half-dozen other delegates. This year, when he was asked to take on the job for a second time, he teamed with Del. Robert B. Bell, a Charlottesville lawyer.

In the Senate, Barker and Howell spoke to Democrats about how their districts might look with target populations of about 200,000.

Republican senators were not consulted, according to legislators. “I don’t take offense,’’ said Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City). “It’s expected.”

As Barker drew lines, he talked to Saslaw, Howell, Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington County), the Democratic caucus chairwoman, and Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), representing the black caucus. Saslaw recently drew the ire of Republicans and others by stating that redistricting was designed to protect the Democratic majority.

Senate Democrats hired the law firm Jenner & Block, attorney Gerry Hebert and an organization called the National Committee for an Effective Congress to look over the maps when Barker was done.

“Everyone was consulted,’’ Howell said. “All Democrats have been given what they like.”

In the House, Jones said that he and Bell contacted Republican delegates and spoke to every Democrat that approached them, including members of the black caucus. But many Democrats say they were not consulted, and even some Republicans from Southside and Southwest are complaining about their districts.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said he wasn’t contacted — and didn’t offer a plan.

“They’re not going to take any advice from me,’’ he said. “This is an entirely political process. It’s flawed. It’s flawed when Republicans are in charge. It’s flawed when Democrats are in charge.”

As Jones and Bell drew lines, they ran them past House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and a lawyer on contract with the Republican caucus, Chris Marston, who hired other consultants, including Caliper Corp., which offered redistricting software Maptitude.

Richmond businessman E. Bryson Powell, an advocate of redistricting reform, called the process “business as usual.” He added: “It fails any sort of test of openness.”

‘Late in the process’

But the commission failed to come up with recommendations — including legislative and congressional plans — until late Friday.

“The recommendations are coming out late in the process and it’s unclear how they are going to be used if at all,’’ Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon) said.

Gary Baise, a Republican on the commission, said he would be disappointed if legislators didn’t consider its proposals.

“I think the process leads to criticism,’’ he said. “People think it’s an incumbent protection program, and that’s not good for democracy.”

Jones and Barker said they would try to look at the commission’s recommendations but made no promises that its input would be used.

“It’s unfortunately a little late in the process,’’ Barker said.

Virginia must submit its plan to the U.S. Department of Justice in time for a 60-day review to ensure that the maps do not dilute the power of black voters in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The plan must be approved in time for an Aug. 23 primary.

Olga Hernandez, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) appointed the commission too late to adequately advise legislators, but that the governor could still heed its advice when he gets his chance to amend or veto the maps.

She and others in the Virginia Redistricting Coalition said they had hoped legislators would seek input from the commission, the student competition and public hearings held across the state.

“I’m not sure how much they listened,’’ Hernandez said.

If their lobbying doesn’t work this time, though, advocates have already set their sights on a new goal: Virginia’s 2021 redistricting.

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