Nonpartisan redistricting reform in the Commonwealth of Virginia, by way of an amendment to the state Constitution, is on life support thanks to the political cowardice and hypocrisy of Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn and the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates.
That’s a harsh assessment, but it’s the truth.
House Democrats had a self-imposed deadline of this past Thursday to take action on the proposed constitution amendment. The chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee just a week earlier had promised the body they would have the chance to vote on the amendment, but when push came to shove, Democrats failed.
They failed because of cowardice. They failed because of hypocrisy on the part of their leaders. They failed because some members believed “the good to be the mortal enemy of the perfect.” They failed because some members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, under the guise of protecting all communities of color, chose to protect their political power over advocating for needed reform of a broken process. And they failed because Speaker Filler-Corn didn’t have the courage to put the best interests of the commonwealth and its 8.5 million residents over the narrow, parochial interests of the 55 members of her House Democratic caucus.
In the 2019 Assembly session, overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the state Senate and House of Delegates approved a constitutional amendment that would create a 16-member, nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw legislative districts for the General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. Virginia law requires a constitutional amendment be re-approved, with no changes whatsoever, by the next Assembly session that convenes following an election for all 140 House and Senate seats, as occurred in November 2019, before it can go to voters for their approval.
The Senate did its part earlier this month, approving the redistricting amendment on another overwhelming bipartisan vote. Sens. Louise Lucas, Mamie Locke and Jennifer McClellan, three of the most powerful Democrats in the chamber and all African Americans, pushed through strong enabling legislation that would explicitly ensure protection of communities of color and outlaw political gerrymanders.
The House, though, was a different story from Day One of the 2020 session. Ever since the November elections when Democrats flipped control of the chamber for the first time in 20 years, relegating Republicans to the sidelines, there had been rumblings about the fate of the redistricting amendment coming from the black caucus. And notably, Speaker Filler-Corn, who owes her election to the post to support from the caucus, was silent on support for the amendment.
And now, by what’s known as a “pocket veto,” the all-powerful speaker has killed the House legislation simply by refusing to schedule a floor vote. Only the Senate bill, with the accompanying enabling legislation from Sens. Lucas, Locke and McClellan, remains alive in the House. The House has until March 7, the last day of the session, to take action on those bills. If the speaker and the black caucus stand in the way, all hope of meaningful redistricting reform is dead.
Oh, they claim their non-amendment process is far superior to permanently rewriting the state Constitution, but the fact of the matter is that House Democrats now have tasted power and they don’t want to give it up.
But let’s remind them — and the residents of Virginia — what past partisan redistrictings have wrought.
In 2001, Republicans in charge of the House went to select Democrats and gave them three options: (1) retire and their districts would be untouched for a likely GOP pickup in the next election, (2) become an independent and caucus with Republicans or (3) stand firm as a Democrat and see their districts sliced and diced. That’s why then-Del. Watkins Abbitt of Appomattox County became an independent and then-Del. Ted Bennett of Halifax County retired.
In 2011, Republicans went after Democrats with all their power, utilizing what courts later ruled to be an illegal racial gerrymander to create super-minority-majority districts for black delegates while creating neighboring districts super-safe for Republicans. A decade-long legal fight ensued, with 12 lawsuits filed and five trips to the U.S. Supreme Court. Taxpayers paid millions of dollars in legal fees defending the GOP’s illegal racial gerrymander. Its overturning in 2017 by a federal court led to the redrawing of more than two dozen districts and the Democrats’ stunning wins in the 2017 House elections.
In the intervening decade, Democrats ran as the party of reform, promising voters they would fix the hyper-partisan redistricting process and return power to the people. No longer would legislators get to pick their voters, Democrats promised. Just elect us, and not those bad Republicans, and we’ll be there for you, they pledged.
It was all a lie. The minute they regained power, any hope of meaningful, permanent change died. Party and payback mattered, not acting in the best interests of the commonwealth and its residents.
All is not lost — yet. There is still time to lobby Speaker Filler-Corn. Call her office at (804) 698-1041 or email her at DelEFiller-Corn@house.virginia.gov. Demand she put what’s best for Virginia ahead of what’s best for the Democratic Party.