Friday, April 12, 2024

How Redistricting Reform is Launching the Virginia General Assembly Into a New Era

The Virginia Capitol under construction in March 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

This is Part 1 of a two-part series from the Virginia Mercury on how Virginia’s new redistricting system is impacting this year’s high-stakes General Assembly elections and the future of the state legislature. Part 2, which examines whether the new maps are politically and racially fair, will be published tomorrow, May 21.

RICHMOND — Since 2016, half of the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates have turned over, bringing a wave of newcomers to an institution as old as American democracy itself. The churn will intensify this year, when three dozen House members are either resigning or running for a different office.

The 2023 election cycle could bring even more dramatic change to the Virginia Senate, where key leaders from both political parties are stepping down in a retirement wave affecting at least a quarter of the upper chamber’s 40 seats. A dozen more sitting senators are currently facing primary competition, which could push the number of departures even higher after the June 20 primary elections.

The reasons for the 2023 exodus vary from legislator to legislator. For some, advanced age or illness were a decisive factor. But the dramatically different electoral maps created after voters approved a new redistricting process in 2021 have been a clear factor in the ongoing institutional shake-up, pushing many incumbents out and opening up more room for candidates to run in new districts other incumbents can’t fully claim as their own.

“A lot of oxes got gored on both sides of the aisle,” said Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson. “I guess in that sense one could say it was a fair map.”

No matter which party wins control in November, when all 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot, Virginia’s legislature will look very different when it reconvenes next year. And that’s fueling both trepidation over the loss of longtime statehouse figures and optimism over the opportunity to build anew.

To describe the tumultuous dynamic he sees coming next year for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, former Republican delegate turned Gentry Locke lobbyist Greg Habeeb quoted an iconic “Game of Thrones” line: “Chaos is a ladder.”

“I genuinely believe chaos is a ladder,” Habeeb said. “That’s not a good thing, necessarily. But chaos is the opportunity for talent, for hard work, for all those things to rise.”

‘Who does that empower?’

With the General Assembly currently under split political control, this year’s elections will determine whether Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin will have GOP majorities working with him to pass more of his agenda in the second half of his four-year term. Democrats are looking to defend their majority in the state Senate and flip control of the House, limiting or reducing Youngkin’s ability to enact conservative policies on K-12 education, abortion, climate change, taxes, voting rules and a variety of other issues currently at a standstill.

The new redistricting system may not dramatically change the legislature’s approach to those issues. But it’s bringing a surge of new players into the debate, and potentially more prominent roles for current lawmakers looking to move up.

Some see the turnover as a net positive, a house-cleaning that will bring fresher perspectives to problems that weren’t necessarily top priorities for the older generation. Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, a supporter of the new redistricting system, said the House has already become more diverse and vibrant, with a broader range of people and professions than it previously had.

That’s “finally broken the seal on some untouchable topics in Richmond,” Hudson said, and she expects the new-look Senate to continue that trend.

“Should we be super surprised that Virginia hasn’t passed paid family leave when there’s one woman in the room when it comes time to make policy on how the workforce works?” said Hudson, who is challenging Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, in a Senate primary. Hudson was referring to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which has only one female member and defeated a paid family leave bill in 2021 when Democrats had full control.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, an opponent of the new redistricting process, agreed the legislature will look dramatically different after this year. But he said there are clear downsides when too many senior lawmakers leave all at once.

“For the ‘throw the bums out’ crowd, that sounds good,” Simon said. “But who does that empower? The folks that are going to fill that knowledge gap are going to be lobbyists.”

Hudson said her experience has shown the opposite to be true. Newer legislators are often less deferential to “contract lobbyists,” she said, than the senior members who have been working with those lobbyists for decades.

“Some of those folks walking are also keepers of cultures that need to go,” Hudson said. “It’s going to be a brand new body.”

Some younger lawmakers feel the retirement boom was inevitable after redistricting because veteran lawmakers lost the power to shield themselves from electoral challenges by picking the precise shape of their districts.

“Most of the laments about the changes to redistricting are coming from senior legislators who had not had to run in competitive districts in some cases for decades,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke.

The new redistricting system didn’t eliminate state lawmakers entirely from the process of redrawing the state’s political maps, which by law must occur once a decade to account for population shifts. The constitutional amendment approved by the General Assembly and Virginia voters in 2020 created a bipartisan redistricting commission made up of eight sitting legislators and eight citizens, with equal representation for both parties and both legislative chambers. Though reform advocates wanted a fully independent commission with no seats for General Assembly members, many lawmakers weren’t comfortable relinquishing their map-drawing power entirely.

An outside commission that still preserved a prominent role for lawmakers was approved as a potentially workable compromise. But the first group of commissioners failed to achieve bipartisan consensus.

As commissioners tried to negotiate a compromise map in the fall of 2021, the panel deadlocked on almost every significant vote, with no tie-breaking mechanism for getting past 8-8 votes. Its failure led to court-appointed experts drawing the maps on their own, with legislators cut out of the process.

Under the backup process overseen by the Supreme Court of Virginia, dozens of sitting lawmakers saw their careers imperiled by being paired with other incumbents or drawn into unfamiliar territory.

“They appeared to genuinely not give any special favor to incumbents,” said Sam Wang, a neuroscience professor who leads the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, an academic effort to independently assess the fairness of state-level redistricting plans. “In that situation, it’s inevitable that some incumbents are going to be displaced. That’s something that would have been almost impossible to imagine if legislators had been in charge.”

‘It’s the people that have run the place’

The list of lawmakers leaving this year includes some of the highest-profile names at the statehouse. Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the longest-serving state senator in Virginia history and longtime leader of the chamber’s Democrats, announced he would retire at 83 instead of seeking another four-year term. His Republican counterpart — Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg — also chose not to run for reelection after being drawn into a district with a younger Republican who co-chairs the Senate GOP caucus, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, a potential contender to be the Senate’s next Democratic leader, said the two legislative chambers have different cultures by design, and he’s concerned too much turnover could cause the upper chamber to lose some of its more collegial vibe.

“The Senate has always tended to be a more collaborative body and less into mortal combat,” said Surovell, who has served in both chambers. “The Senate is more like fencing and the House is more like kickboxing.”

The new General Assembly Building, slated to open in 2023, in Richmond, Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

On the House side, former Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the first woman to ever hold the job, is bowing out of public service for now after being drawn into the same district as Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax. That could help clear the way for House Minority Leader Don Scott, a Portsmouth Democrat who ousted Filler-Corn as the chamber’s Democratic leader last year, to become the first Black speaker in the institution’s history if his party regains a House majority in November.

Nearly half of the House’s current committee chairs won’t be returning next year. Even if Republicans defend their 52-48 majority in the chamber, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, will have to promote several members of his caucus to fill key legislative roles left empty by the departure of long-serving legislators like Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, and Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle.

Former Del. Glenn Davis, a Republican from Virginia Beach who chairs the House Education Committee, already relinquished his seat to take a job in the Youngkin administration. Davis had been drawn into the same district as Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Senate departures will be acutely felt on the influential Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, where a roster of top senators make key decisions about government spending and taxation. Almost half of the committee’s 15 members aren’t returning, including Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the committee’s co-chair. The other co-chair — Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax — is one of five committee members currently running in primaries. On the Republican side, the exits of senior lawmakers like Norment, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, and Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, will leave a big hole on the committee for the caucus to fill.

“It’s not just rank and file leaving,” Habeeb said. “It’s the people that have run the place.”

Preston Bryant, a former Republican delegate who now works as a lobbyist and senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting, said there will undoubtedly be “a loss of institutional memory,” and the statehouse lobbying corps will have to get to know a lot of new members. But he emphasized that at least two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber will still be there.

“We still have the seniority system, so other returning incumbents will move up and fill those seats,” Bryant said. “From a lobbyist perspective, we will still be dealing with a lot of very good veteran legislators on all the big issues. That part won’t change but so much.”

The coming power vacuum on the Senate money committee is already stirring up drama among Democrats.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who thanks to redistricting is locked in a competitive primary with fellow Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, recently took to her high-profile Twitter account to accuse several Northern Virginia Democrats of propping up Spruill in an effort to deny her a top job on the Finance and Appropriations Committee.

“I usually stand by and don’t call out bullshit publicly,” Lucas said in a lengthy Twitter thread to her almost 90,000 followers. “But to have colleagues working to raise money to try to defeat me because they don’t want communities like mine to have the kind of influence and power I have accumulated meant that I had to speak up. Enough is enough.”

Some Democrats Lucas targeted have publicly denied her accusation, saying their participation in a fundraising event for Spruill wasn’t an endorsement or part of a larger plot to push her out.

Because either Lucas or Spruill will lose, one of the two senior Black lawmakers will unwillingly join the ranks of departing senators.

‘Everything we said would happen has happened’

The new district maps have also created opportunities for voters to weigh in on whether some of their party’s most polarizing figures should stay in office or not.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who was formally censured by the Senate over comments supporting far-right activists who stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021, is in a three-way primary race against former Sen. Glen Sturtevant and conservative activist Tina Ramirez. That race is unfolding in a suburban Richmond-area district that includes some of Chase’s current district and part of the district Sturtevant represented before losing the seat in 2019.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond — who has not been able to steer clear of personal controversies since rejoining the General Assembly in 2019, five years after he was criminally charged over his relationship with his teenage secretary, whom he went on to marry — is facing a primary challenge from former delegate Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, who is attempting to make the race a referendum on Morrissey’s anti-abortion stance.

Aird, a vocal critic of the new redistricting commission setup, acknowledges the new maps may be working in her favor against Morrissey, who is having to reach out to a substantial number of new voters in territory he hasn’t campaigned in before. But the district she’s running in, she added, isn’t a particularly cohesive one, spreading from Henrico County in the Richmond suburbs to Petersburg to the edge of Hampton Roads and into Southside Virginia. In Aird’s view, the turnover angst both parties are feeling is a direct result of the new redistricting process.

“Everything we said would happen has happened,” Aird said. “It’s actually far worse.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who sponsored the redistricting reform amendment in the House and is now running for the state Senate, said he shares some of the concern about the loss of experienced lawmakers. But a significantly younger legislature, he said, is going to have a “different relationship” to issues like housing costs and college affordability than older generations. In his view, the new redistricting process, despite the downsides, achieved the core goals of fairer maps, preventing gerrymandering and creating “a more competitive ecosystem.”

“I think we are going to have a more representative body when all is said and done,” VanValkenburg said.

The 2023 cycle also features a rarity in Virginia politics: an independent candidate for the state Senate who appears more serious than others who have tried to run outside the two-party system. Monica Gary, who has a headline-grabbing backstory as a former stripper turned pastor, is running in a Fredericksburg-area district with a slight Republican lean. Unlike most independent candidates, she already holds elected office as a member of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and had raised nearly $60,000 as of March 31. She’s running on an outside-the-box platform of preserving access to abortion and creating “a path for school choice that won’t adversely impact public schools.”

Having a new district drawn without an incumbent in mind, Gary said, was “definitely a factor” in her conversations with people who encouraged her to run.

“I think it just gave people some hope for something different,” she said.

Tomorrow: Whether the new maps are politically and racially fair.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the partisan affiliation of Preston Bryant when he served in the House of Delegates.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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