The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia politicians pick self-preservation over principle

Keysha Ferebee casts her ballot on Nov. 2 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Va. (Kristen Zeis/For The Washington Post)

I’ve written a lot about Goldman v. Brink, the long-running lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s 2021 House of Delegates elections. The lawsuit, filed back in June by my former Post writing partner Paul Goldman, poses fundamental questions about the rule of law and supposedly inviolable one-man one-vote principle.

But it’s critical to remember that for all the legal issues and questions of principle surrounding this case, politics is at its core. And on that issue, William Ferguson Reid Sr. — “Fergie,” he insists — believes Virginia Democrats are missing an enormous opportunity to build their party and stand up for voting rights.

The 97 year-old Reid, who co-founded the Richmond Crusade for Voters in 1956 and in 1968 became the first Black member of the Virginia General Assembly in the 20th century, told me Democrats have to “seize this moment.”

Reid said, “It’s in Democrats’ interest to run this year, but they just don’t want to see it.”

Speaking with the zeal and determination of a lifelong grass-roots campaigner, Reid said the congressional midterm elections mean “there will be a lot of money available for candidates, and much better voter turnout.” Reid believes House of Delegates candidates could “ride the coattails” of their congressional counterparts on Election Day and retake the majority they lost following the November elections.

Asked why they haven’t seized this opportunity, Reid said he believes it’s because Virginia Democrats are “happy with the status quo.”

That doesn’t mean they like being in the House minority. But getting involved in the Goldman v. Brink case and actively pushing for the court to use the Cosner v. Dalton solution to fix the problem of facially unconstitutional House of Delegates districts requires both a long-term plan and the will to carry it out.

Reid says Democrats don’t have either.

“They don’t have a plan for getting out the vote if an election does happen,” Reid said, noting that “most politicians take elections for granted and don’t want to do the gut work of getting people organized and getting them to the polls.”

Though some Democrats have quietly said they are prepared to run again this November if the federal courts orders special elections, none has come forward to endorse Goldman’s lawsuit. But individuals saying they would run — if required — and the Democratic apparatus being ready to support special elections in 100 House districts (assuming Democrats would contest them all — and don’t count on that) are entirely different things.

Right now, Reid says, Democrats are more interested in protecting their incumbents than they are in building for the future.

Incumbent protection is hardly unique to Democrats. It’s part of the reason Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) picked up the fight against Goldman right where his predecessor, Democrat Mark R. Herring, left off.

The GOP political calculus against special elections is simple: Running out the clock on a Cosner-style remedy means Republicans can keep their House majority until 2023 — guaranteed. Running in the new, state Supreme Court-approved House districts — which slightly favor Democrats — would put that majority at risk.

Of course it’s cynical. And, yes, it shreds decades of Republican rhetoric about the rule of law and reverence for the constitution.

Reid, who spent years wrestling with the Byrd Machine and its thicket of laws and customs designed to keep Blacks silent and keep political power concentrated in the hands of a select few, knows plenty about Virginia’s brand of political cynicism.

When I asked him why Democrats have maintained a Byrd-like silence on the Goldman case, Reid said there were two kinds of politicians. “One is interested in building the party, seeking a majority, and running candidates in every district at every election.”

“The other,” Reid said, “is only interested in incumbent survival.”

On the redistricting case, Democrats and Republican are in near-complete agreement: Survival trumps principle — just as it always has.