Incumbent protection? House plan would add Fauquier to 5th
Every 10 years, Virginia redraws its congressional districts following the fresh census results. Cooler heads inevitably call for nonpartisan redistricting, and accusations of "gerrymandering" inevitably follow the new districts, always weighted-to-the-party-in-power.
A bipartisan plan has emerged from Virginia's members in the House of Representatives, Politico reports, but rather than praising that spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, critics are blasting the plan as "incumbent protection."
The plan was devised primarily by Virginia's eight GOP members, including the 5th District's freshman Representative Robert Hurt, and it got the support of the state's three Dem Reps by strengthening their districts as well, according to Politico's Richard E. Cohen, who cites multiple sources from both parties familiar with the plan.
Most eyepopping for voters in the already-gigantic 5th District, which stretches more than 150 miles from the North Carolina border to Greene County, is that the district would bloat even farther north to bisect the state, adding the Republican-leaning Washington exurb of Warrenton in Fauquier County.
David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report calls it "the most egregiously shaped district," stretching Hurt’s district from his home in border-hugging Pittsylvania County to within just 40 miles of Washington, D.C.
"In the process, it would lose Democratic areas like Martinsville, which would go to the 9th Congressional District, and Nelson County, which would go to the 6th," writes Wasserman. "It would gain more of heavily Republican Bedford County as well as Republican areas north of Charlottesville, which would make the district two points more Republican."
Dem-leaning Charlottesville and Albemarle County would remain in the 5th.
"Robert Hurt is going to drive from Washington D.C. to Chatham," says State Senator Creigh Deeds. "He's trying to create a Route 29 district."
Hurt had not responded to multiple requests for comment at press time.
Deeds, who represents the weirdly drawn 25th State Senate District that stretches from the West Virginia border to Charlottesville, has long called for bipartisan redistricting. He sits on three State Senate committees that deal with redistricting, and says the only word he's had of the alleged congressional plan is from Politico and from Cook.
"Members of Congress get very self-interested every 10 years," observes Deeds, noting that such a plan would still have to pass the General Assembly and predicts that by April, the Assembly will decide the state's districts first (as members of the House of Delegates are up for reelection in November), followed by congressional districts in May or June.
While the new districts have to be signed by Governor Bob McDonnell, who appointed an Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission, "toothless" is how Deeds describes the commission.
"It drew four Congressmen out of their districts," he explains. "You can bet the governor is not going to sign that plan."
Sean O'Brien, executive director of the Center for the Constitution at Montpelier, serves on the governor's Commission, and he says calling the group toothless is "a little harsh."
He also says the Congress-written plan exemplifies all that's wrong with redistricting: done in secret with no public input.
"What we've been hearing from citizens is that they want openness and transparency," says O'Brien. "Voters want to pick their elected officials rather than have elected officials pick their voters."
Members of the nonpartisan Virginia Redistricting Coalition lob scorn of their own.
“Any Congressman who agreed to this deal cares more about self-preservation than citizen representation,” said Olga Hernandez, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, which is a member of the Coalition. “If this secret plan stands, they ought to call it that: The U.S. House of Self-Preservation."
Calling it "gerrymandering," she urges the General Assembly to opt instead for the nonpartisan plans recently released by the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission and the Virginia College Redistricting Competition, the latter of which garnered ideas from students. At a recent hearing, however, reports the Cook Report's Wasserman, "legislative aides could audibly be heard laughing at students’ plans."
Deeds favors the "Iowa criteria," a plan unique to that midwest state, which ignores political and election information.
"Keep districts compact and contiguous," says long-haul legislator Deeds. "Don't consider anything but population."
Could such a thing happen here?
Attorney Leigh Middleditch Jr. is a longtime supporter of redistricting reform, but he gives long odds that Virginia would pick population over politics: "about one in 100."
Commission member Sean O'Brien optimistically points out, however, that anti-gerrymanderists hold another card: "We have the power to shame."