Dels. Cia Price, D-Newport News, and Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, react after a proposed redistricting amendment proposal narrowly passed the House of Delegates in March. (Ned Oliver/VM)
By Graham Moomaw
When the Virginia House of Delegates was getting ready to pass its 2011 redistricting plan, Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, stood to say something she knew her colleagues might not want to hear.
But, she said, “I just don’t care.”
Speaking on the House floor before a vote on a Republican-crafted legislative map, Ward, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said she knew her district lines had been drawn to make it easier for her to get re-elected, and that it would have been easy for her to just think about what was “going to be good for me.” But she didn’t think the map represented the type of bipartisan effort voters expect. And that’s why she would vote no, even though it wouldn’t stop the map from passing.
“But I hope that in all the history books, that somewhere, people will remember me as someone that had the nerve to stand up and say no,” she said at the time.
Seven years later, her district was one of 11 ruled racially gerrymandered by a federal court that found House leaders used illegal racial targets to draw Black voters into majority-minority districts. That practice made districts safer for Black incumbents like Ward, while also making neighboring districts easier for White Republicans to win. When a court-appointed expert redrew the racially gerrymandered districts last year, Ward’s district got more White voters and Republicans. But it remained solidly Democratic, and she ran unopposed.
Ward’s 2011 speech highlighted the complicated role of race in the redistricting process, an issue that has become perhaps the most contentious point in this year’s debate over redistricting reform and the proposed constitutional amendment to create a 16-member, bipartisan commission to redraw the maps starting in 2021.
Half the seats would go to sitting legislators appointed by party leaders and half would go to citizens nominated by party leaders and appointed by retired judges. If voters approve the amendment on Nov. 3, the commission will redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps in 2021. If they don’t, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly will draw the maps and submit them for Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.
Black delegates have been the plan’s most vocal opponents for two years, arguing they shouldn’t be asked to trust political and legal systems that have failed Black communities before. Protections and inclusion for racial minorities, they say, should be a prominent, built-in feature, not an add-on or a promise.
The fact that so many Black Virginians were voting under a racially gerrymandered House map for most of the last decade until the courts addressed it for the 2019 elections, said Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, shows why many members of the Black Caucus have their guard up about a commission that is neither independent or non-partisan.
“There’s a lot at stake for communities of color,” Price said.
Late last month, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP formally announced its opposition to the proposal, saying “for too many years, politicians have drawn rigged districts that strip Black voters of our voice.”
However, some amendment supporters say Virginia’s recent history with racial gerrymandering shows how political motives and self-preservation can intertwine across party lines. And they see the fears of drastic racial implications as misplaced, providing cover for Democrats and Black Caucus members who would prefer to draw the districts themselves.
In the 2011 process, Ward was an outlier among Black House members, most of whom voted for the plan later found to be racially gerrymandered and some of whom helped craft it.
Tavorise Marks, an amendment supporter and Chesterfield NAACP member, said many of the Black politicians opposing the commission plan have strongly Democratic districts and understandably want to keep them that way.
“Wouldn’t you want to be in a position to protect that?” said Marks, who ran for the House last year but lost a Democratic primary.
He said the commission’s critics have “turned the entire issue into emotion.”
“Don’t put fear out there having this whole entire thing be about stripping away your rights,” Marks said.
Black delegates bristle at the claim their opposition might be rooted in self-interest rather than legitimate concerns about minority representation.
“Our fear is not for self,” Price said. “We are scrappers. We know our communities. We’ve been working hard for our communities.”
As part of the 2019 Democratic takeover, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus grew to 23 members, the most since Reconstruction. Several senior Black lawmakers now lead legislative committees, including Ward, who oversaw the passage of the state’s first minimum-wage increase since 2009 as chairwoman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
One seat the Black Caucus gained appeared to be a direct result of the districts being drawn to undo the past racial gerrymandering, a process that imperiled several White Republicans. Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, handily defeated former Republican Del. Chris Jones, then the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.
Black candidates like Dels. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, and Josh Cole, D-Stafford, have also flipped Republican-held districts that are not majority Black.
Carroll Foy and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, are now running for governor, both with the potential to make history as the first Black woman to be elected governor of any state.
For some Black Caucus members, the debate over redistricting reform is about making sure there’s no sliding backward.
The commission plan’s critics have pointed out the amendment has no guarantee any of the 16 seats will go to Black people. That frustration seemed to grow out of what some Black Caucus members saw as an earlier snub in 2019, when Republican leaders appointed seven White lawmakers to finalize the amendment’s details before its first passage.
“There was not one person of color in the group that concocted this,” Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond said earlier this year during an emotional floor debate before the second vote. “For those who are advocating this, to expect us to believe that you have all Virginians in your heart and your mind and in this flawed amendment … miss me with that.”
The amendment’s backers have tried to pass accompanying legislation to partially address the concern about commission inclusivity, specifying that those appointing commission members “shall give consideration to the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the Commonwealth.” That guideline isn’t in place yet, but commission supporters say it’s widely understood that the General Assembly leaders tasked with appointing commissioners will not create an all-White panel. The two Democratic senators on the commission would be appointed by Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, a senior member of the Black Caucus who supports the amendment.
“People must be closing their eyes or whatever,” said Bobby Vassar, a Democratic attorney and former legislative director for U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, at a recent virtual discussion hosted by pro-amendment group Fair Maps VA. “We have Louise Lucas, the president pro tem of the Virginia Senate, who’s a Black woman, a strong Black woman, that everybody knows. Louise is not going to allow this process to not represent and include Black people.”
Lucas could not be reached for comment. And McClellan did not respond to requests for an interview.
The four Black Caucus members in the Senate voted for the amendment this year, but they’ve generally been less vocal about their support than the opponents in the House. They don’t seem to share the concerns that the amendment could harm Black voters.
The other main race-related critique of the amendment is that it doesn’t include strong enough protections similar to the Voting Rights Act, the landmark federal law intended to protect minority voting power, especially in Southern states with histories of suppressing Black votes.
The amendment’s text says all districts must be “drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness,” including the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. Opponents argue that’s not good enough, because federal courts reshaped by President Donald Trump could diminish those protections in the future. In a state whose Constitution still includes a now-moot ban on gay marriage, they say, racial protections should be important enough to be written in directly.
“This is about a system,” Price said. “This is not about current elected officials.”
The recent shift to fairer maps and undoing the racial gerrymanders of 2011, she said, didn’t happen by accident.
“It was because Black folks stood up and sued for their rights,” Price said.
Supporters insist the amendment bolsters legal protections for racial minorities by writing a Voting Rights Act reference into the state Constitution, as well as language stating that districts “shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”
The phrase “where practicable” is a sore spot for opponents, who see it as a suggestion the provision is optional. Supporters say it’s a simple nod to the fact that in mostly White regions of the state, it’s not mathematically possible to create majority-minority districts.
At the Fair Maps VA discussion, Phillip Thompson, executive director of a pro-amendment group called the National Black Nonpartisan Redistricting Organization, joked that opponents have made the amendment sound like “the worst thing for African-Americans since slavery.” If the commission produces maps drawn in the interest of Black voters instead of Black incumbents, he said, Black voters will be spread out in a way that could swing more races. And by extension, he said, they’ll have more influence.
“You’ll see people that now have to pay attention to you,” he said. “Piling them all into one district is not going to get you power.”