The eight citizens will join with eight lawmakers already on the commission to draw new political boundaries in Virginia that will be based on demographic data from the 2020 U.S. Census. The commission’s first meeting is set for Feb. 1, but because census data is likely to be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is unclear whether the panel will finish its work in time for election primaries to be held in June as usual.
Officials have said the primaries could be delayed if necessary.
Virginia elects its governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 members of the House of Delegates this year. The redistricting commission is an attempt to eliminate partisan influence; in the past, the General Assembly drew political boundaries, and several recent attempts have been thrown out by federal courts as racially gerrymandered.
The panel of judges conducted an open, online meeting Wednesday to come up with the slate of eight. They were operating under guidelines to make the panel as diverse as possible in terms of race, gender, geographic region, age and economic status.
It proved to be as complicated as solving a Sudoku math puzzle, because layered on those constraints was the requirement to pick two members each from the slates nominated by the House speaker, the House minority leader, the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Senate minority leader.
The judges praised the overall quality of the pool of applicants, who had to include letters of recommendation and disclose their income and work history to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
It was “an astonishingly qualified group of individuals,” said retired judge Larry B. Kirksey of Bristol.
Still, judges wrestled to get a diverse combination of members, complaining at one point that the finalists included numerous Black women but only one Black man. There were also few finalists from the vast rural areas of the Southside and Southwest regions of the state.
The judges narrowed the pool by favoring nominees who had been put forward by more than one legislator. After more than four hours of deliberation, they chose a group that includes one person of Hispanic background, one who listed himself as Asian, another who said he was “multi race,” two Black members and three White members:
● Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond.
● Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Hampton Roads.
● Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville outside Richmond.
● Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg.
● James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax.
● Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria.
● Marvin W. Gilliam, 64, of Bristol.
● Richard O. Harrell III, 75, of South Boston.
Overall the group is affluent — many reported incomes of more than $200,000, and only one reported income of less than $100,000.
They will join the eight legislative members: delegates Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania) and Margaret B. Ransone (R-Westmoreland); as well as senators George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) and Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford).
The panel’s chair will be chosen from among the citizen members.
Correction: The number of citizens applying for the commission has been updated in this article.