RICHMOND, Va. — Dozens of people jeered Republicans on a House committee Friday after they declined to revive legislation aimed at changing the way political districts are drawn in Virginia.
More than 100 people gathered for the meeting of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. Some of them yelled “Cowards!” and “Shame on you!” after the panel refused a request by Democrats to reconsider five redistricting proposals that a subcommittee had killed earlier in the week.
During the Friday morning meeting, the committee blew through its agenda and did not take up the proposed constitutional amendments addressing redistricting. Del. Mark Sickles, D-Alexandria, tried to be recognized by the panel’s chairman, Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, so he could ask for a vote on the amendments. Sickles turned on the light at his seat but was ignored by the rest of the committee.
“I don’t know why they’re afraid to vote on this,” Sickles said afterward. “If you don’t think it’s a good idea, vote no. That’s what we do – vote yes or no. But to prevent the committee with jurisdiction over this very important issue not even to vote at all is shameful.”
Democrats sponsored four of the proposed constitutional amendments. Most of them would have created an independent commission to redraw political lines instead of letting the General Assembly do it.
A Republican, Del. Steve Landes of Augusta County, also offered a proposal – House Joint Resolution 763. It would have prohibited “any electoral district from being drawn in order to favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent legislator, member of Congress or other individual entity,” a practice known as gerrymandering. Landes’ resolution did not include the creation of a redistricting commission.
HJ 763 had the support of One Virginia 2021, a nonpartisan organization “advocating for fair redistricting of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Members of the organization packed the meeting room in the hope of getting committee members to take up the resolution.
The meeting lasted about 20 minutes. As legislators left the room, members of the audience bellowed “Boo” and “Do the right thing.”
“People are responding to this issue because it’s so important,” Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, said. “It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue; this is a power issue.”
Cannon called the committee’s decision to not even vote on the resolution “unfortunate.”
“They’re afraid to have the discussion,” he said.
On Monday, the Constitutional Subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee killed the five redistricting proposals in a 4-3 block vote.
Del. Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, who chairs the subcommittee, said the panel had no choice as it considered 28 amendments to the Virginia Constitution.
“On Jan. 30, we deliberated on these 28 resolutions and made our recommendations to the full committee,” Minchew said. “In accordance with the chairman’s request, our subcommittee was asked to limit our reported bills for recommendation to not more than three. We honored this request and reported three bills.”
As a result, the other 25 proposed amendments were then placed in a single block and killed simultaneously.
Supporters of the redistricting amendments had hoped the full committee would resurrect at least one of the redistricting-related measures.
Sickles was disappointed that the committee did not bring the proposals up for a vote.
“This issue has overwhelming support everywhere,” Sickles said. “It’s seeping deeper into the public psyche that this is our problem, this is the root of our problem in politics. We want to come down here and compromise. We don’t want to win all the time. We want to debate issues and stand up and vote one way or the other.”
Cannon said Landes’ constitutional amendment “represents the core component of redistricting reform.”
“It is simple: if you think politicians should be able to carve out their political opponents, then you are for gerrymandering and the elimination of competition in our elections,” he said.
By Megan Corsano with Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.