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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam vows to break deadlock on redistricting

Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), left talks with Del. Paul E. Krizek (D-Fairfax) and Del. Marica “Cia" Price (D-Newport News) during a meeting at the Virginia Capitol on Feb. 28.
Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), left talks with Del. Paul E. Krizek (D-Fairfax) and Del. Marica “Cia" Price (D-Newport News) during a meeting at the Virginia Capitol on Feb. 28. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) vowed Friday to help break a legislative deadlock on redistricting, an issue that helped Democrats flip the legislature in November but has split the party ever since.

Northam sent word he would weigh in — by twisting arms, sending down a new bill or even calling a special session — as time seemed to be running out for a constitutional amendment limiting the power of legislators to draw political maps for partisan gain. The legislature is scheduled to adjourn its regular 60-day session on March 7.

“Governor Northam has been a strong supporter of redistricting reform since he first ran for the state senate in 2007,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement. “He believes that Virginians should choose their elected officials, not the other way around.”

In last year’s elections, redistricting reform was a rallying cry for Democrats, who said Republicans had clung to power in a changing Virginia by dint of racially gerrymandered maps.

Since the state’s legislative and congressional maps were last drawn in 2011 — by a GOP-led House and Democratically controlled Senate — the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ordered do-overs.

Federal courts found the legislature had packed too many black voters into a Hampton Roads-based congressional district and 11 House of Delegates districts. The maps were drawn with the support of black lawmakers, who wanted the security of overwhelmingly black districts.

The amendment would create a bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens to draw the state’s political boundaries, a process now controlled by the General Assembly and the governor. The map created by the commission would be submitted to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote, prohibiting amendments and leaving the governor out of the process.

The measure passed the legislature with overwhelming support last year but needs to clear it a second time, and win approval from voters in a referendum, for it to take effect. This year is the last opportunity to make that change in time for the next round of redistricting, which takes place next year in response to the 2020 Census.

Now that Democrats are in control of the House, Senate and Executive Mansion, some are having second thoughts about handing off most of their mapmaking power. Senate Democrats have stood firm in support, but the House has wavered.

Many members of the House Black Caucus have warned since last year that the amendment doesn’t safeguard the interests of minorities. At least a few more House Democrats say they share those concerns now, though not enough to doom the amendment if it reaches the floor, where it passed 85 to 13 last year.

But with powerful black delegates opposed and Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) refusing to take a public position, the legislation has not advanced on that side of the Capitol. The House let a resolution calling for the amendment die without a vote. The Senate version has languished before the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

“Democrats have talked a big game about gerrymandering and fair maps over the last several years,” said author David Daley, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

“Now they hold a trifecta in Virginia, and they have the responsibility to step up and enact the reform that they promised. Their credibility on this issue rides on it.”

The House committee seemed poised to vote Friday morning when Chairman Joseph C. Lindsey (D-Norfolk) announced that the governor had personally asked him to delay. Lindsey said the vote would take place Monday.

“Given the increasing possibility of legislative deadlock, he is reviewing all options,” Yarmosky said. “Those options include personally engaging with legislators to reach a solution, sending a bill down or calling a special session.”

If Northam submits a new bill, it is unlikely to be a proposed constitutional amendment, which must pass the legislature twice in identical form. More likely, it would be enabling legislation meant to address some of the flaws critics see in the amendment.

The House and Senate already have bills attempting to do just that, setting out guidelines for the commission that are meant to safeguard issues such as minority representation.

Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), who is sponsoring a rival bill to scrap the amendment and set up a commission with explicit protections for minority representation, welcomed the delay as an “opportunity to have a conversation.”

“I think whatever we do, we need to leave with an actual solution that allows us to have elections with integrity,” she said.

But House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) called Northam’s move “confusing” and renewed his call for a floor vote on the amendment.

“Muddying the waters at this point with new legislation is not helpful and could well be an attempt to derail the amendment at the last minute,” Gilbert said.

Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a civics teacher who had submitted the House resolution, saw no reason for delay.

“Everybody knows where everybody stands. We also know we have the votes to pass it,” he said. “We’ve been debating this issue for a couple years now.”

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Nonpartisan redistricting sought in Virginia

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