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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske September 16, 2011

More talk than action on redistricting

Bob McDonnell was accused of flip-flopping in the 2009 gubernatorial campaign when he promised steps to ensure "bipartisan citizen involvement" in the drawing of new legislative and congressional districts.

Few events are more brutally political in Virginia than redistricting, which occurs every 10 years after the U.S. Census reports come out. The ruling party in each legislative body uses the process to expand its majority by drawing districts that favor friends and punish foes. That often results in gerrymandered districts that split localities and precincts.

McDonnell had long defended legislators' right to control the process. In 2004, as a member of the Republican majority in the House of Delegates, he voted against an unsuccessful bill that would have established a bipartisan commission to study alternative ways of redistricting.

As attorney general in early 2008 and 2009, he was silent when the House killed bills to create a bipartisan citizens panel that would propose redistricting maps for the General Assembly. The measures were introduced by state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who would become McDonnell's opponent for governor.

But in May 2009, McDonnell changed his stand on redistricting and made a promise.

"Whether through legislation or a Blue Ribbon Governor's panel, Bob McDonnell will ensure bipartisan citizen involvement in the state's legislative and congressional redistricting process in 2010-2011," McDonnell's campaign declared in a policy paper.

"Legislative boundaries must be drawn in a way that maximizes voter participation and awareness and the lines should reflect commonsense geographic boundaries and a strong community of interests," the campaign statement added.  

Deeds dismissed McDonnell's shift as "election-year pander." McDonnell acknowledged his position had changed. "In the past I have not been supportive of this issue," he said during a conference call with reporters, adding that redistricting "should not be left solely to the political whims of the legislature."

And on Jan. 10, 2011 -- almost one year to the day after his inauguration -- McDonnell named an 11-member, bipartisan citizens' commission on redistricting. True to its mission, the panel held public hearings across the state and encouraged a competition among college students that produced 55 redistricting plans. It also drew its own set of maps that largely ignored political considerations and created districts based on the on the ideals of compactness and keeping communities together.

But that's where it all ended for the commission. McDonnell made no effort to advance its final work. "The recommendations of the commission are theirs alone; they are not the recommendations of the governor," Tucker Martin, the governor's communication chief, said in March.

Legislators essentially ignored the commission's work. The General Assembly passed and McDonnell signed bills that keep 90 percent of legislators in districts unoccupied by another incumbent. The plan increased the number of localities and precincts that are split into different legislative districts.

The commission's recommendations would have reduced the number of split localities and precincts. It offered less protection to incumbents than the General Assembly's plan. Several members of the panel lamented that McDonnell did not promote their final work.

The General Assembly is still haggling over a new maps for Virginia's 11 congressmen.

So McDonnell pledged to create a commission that would "ensure bipartisan citizen involvement in the state"s legislative and redistricting process." And he indeed appointed a panel. But largely because the governor was indifferent to its recommendations, the group never influenced the nitty-gritty of the redistricting process. The real map drawing remained solely in the hands of politicians.

And McDonnell turned his promise into a Compromise.

Our Sources

Legislative Information System, House Joint Resolution 165, 2004.

Legislative Information System, Senate Bill 38, 2008.

Legislative Information System, Senate Bill 926, 2009

McDonnell for Governor, Government Reform, 2009.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, McDonnell reverses on redistricting, May 23, 2009.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Advocates criticize population criteria for Va. redistricting, March 29, 2011.

Independent Advisory Commission on Redistricting, The Public Interest in Redistricting, April 2, 2011.


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