Virginia’s New Compromise

Virginia Democratic politics has been interesting showing how much of the claims of the party were just grandstanding. However, a recent development shows the power of a few good people.

Last year, I wrote about the Northam/ Fairfax mess. It highlighted that national Democrats are eager to call on their members to resign if there’s a serious controversy, in order to claim the moral high ground, as long as the party maintains power. When it turned out that Governor Ralph Northam had an unfortunate photo in his Medical School yearbook of a KKK member and a white man in blackface (and we’re still not sure which one was him) the party was eager to call on him to resign. Initially, it seemed the replacement would be the young African-American Lieutenant Governor, but then multiple women accused him of sexual assault. Next in line was the state Attorney General, a middle-aged white man who admit that he too had dressed in blackface in the 1980s. Next in line after that was a Republican, and Democrats suddenly decided it wasn’t important for Northam to resign.

This isn’t something unique to Democrats. Republicans do plenty of sketchy things when it’s in their political interests to do so. But it shows that Democrats will resign only when it won’t cost the party anything (IE- When Al Franken was pushed out and his replacement was the Democratic Lieutenant Governor.) Meanwhile, they wonder why many Republicans won’t do the right thing when it will cost the party in a general election (IE- why so many backed Roy Moore in the general election for Senate.)

Last year, the Republican controlled state legislature, the Democratic minority and Democratic Governor in Virginia were united in the belief that to combat gerrymandering, the power to determine new legislative district lines should go to  a new bipartisan organization. This was in the best interests of Republicans, since they didn’t see the legislative elections going very well for the party.

That was a marked change from last year’s bipartisanship, when the Legislature approved an identical version of the proposed amendment, the first move in a two-vote process needed to place such measures on the ballot. At the time, Democrats were in the minority in the House, and the amendment passed with overwhelming support from both parties, 85 to 13. Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature but were widely expected to lose power, which they did, in November.

Many Democrats had made campaign promises to support the amendment on its second vote, and they were under intense pressure to make good on the pledge. The State Senate had earlier voted, 38-2, in favor of the proposed amendment. But passage in the House was uncertain until the final hours.

After the November elections, many of the Democrats changed their minds about the policy they had thought was essential, since they were in a position to gerrymander in their favor. Ultimately, nine Democrats joined Republicans in supporting legislation the entire party had been campaigning on.

Virginia’s new amendment would establish a 16-member commission, made up of eight lawmakers and eight citizens, divided evenly between the two major parties. A supermajority of both lawmaker and citizen commissioners would have to agree on a proposed map to send it to the Legislature and governor for approval. If they can’t, the job shifts to the State Supreme Court.

The amendment, which under the State Constitution had to pass the Legislature twice in a row before going to the voters, was first approved in 2019 by overwhelming bipartisan margins. At the time, Republicans controlled the Legislature, but polls pointed strongly toward an impending Democratic takeover in last fall’s elections. As soon as that happened, most Democrats withdrew their support from the amendment. Many had previously vowed to keep supporting it even if they won — yet another reminder that power is a lot harder to relinquish once you have it in your hands.

Some black Democratic lawmakers also opposed the amendment because, they argued, it didn’t provide enough protections for black voters, who have long been cheated out of political power by biased maps. In the past five years, federal courts in Virginia have struck down Republican-drawn state and congressional districts for intentionally discriminating against black voters.

Advocates of the amendment nevertheless called its passage a seminal moment. “This is historic for Virginia to take a step forward on changing our broken redistricting system,” said Brian Cannon, the executive director of OneVirginia, a grass-roots group that drove the amendment campaign. “It puts citizens at the table with legislators for the first time ever. It takes it out of the smoky back room and adds sunlight and transparency.”

The proposed amendment creates a 16-member redistricting body composed of eight legislators — four each from the two major parties — and eight citizens. Disputes over boundaries would be settled by a court-appointed special master. If approved by voters, it also would enshrine specific voting-rights protection for minorities into the State Constitution for the first time.

It highlights the difference a few good politicians (9 of the 55 Democrats in the Assembly) can make.

Last fall, Democrats won majorities in both houses of the Virginia Legislature; with a Democratic governor already in office, they took full control of the state government for the first time in a generation. They had unlimited power to fashion the new maps in their favor, cementing their own grip on power just as Republicans around the country have done since the last redistricting cycle in 2011. Some Republican maps are so biased that they have given the G.O.P. legislative supermajorities even when the party loses the statewide popular vote, which happened in Wisconsin in 2018. So it’s entirely understandable for Democrats who regain power to want payback — now.

And yet nine Virginia Democrats agreed to put down their partisan swords and join Republicans to support the new amendment, which would require that the state’s district maps be drawn by a bipartisan commission made up of lawmakers and regular citizens. Voters must ratify the amendment in November before it will take effect.

The Democrats’ vote was a display of integrity and selflessness by members of a party with unified control of government. It placed long-term interest in the health of representative democracy over the shorter-term partisan benefits that both parties have been happy to exploit when they control redistricting.

One takeaway is that a lot of political arguments that seem to be about a higher principle are largely about what is in one group’s best interests. However, it is refreshing to see that some people in elected office do have principles and can make a difference.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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