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Richmond suburbs loom as fault line in preliminary discussion of new congressional districts
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Richmond suburbs loom as fault line in preliminary discussion of new congressional districts

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Virginia Redistricting Commission implodes, co-chair walks out

Henrico and Chesterfield counties are shaping up as key areas of debate as Virginia’s redistricting commission takes its first crack at redrawing the state’s congressional districts ahead of an Oct. 25 deadline.

In Virginia’s current congressional map, Chesterfield and Henrico are split between districts represented by Rep. Don McEachin, D-4th and Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.

A proposed redrawn 5th District, drafted by a GOP-aligned mapmaker, would include western Chesterfield and a few Henrico precincts in a district anchored in Southside that stretches to Halifax County and Danville along the North Carolina line.

Under initial districts proposed by Republican and Democratic mapmakers, Henrico would be split among the 4th, 5th and 1st congressional districts. Hanover and New Kent counties would remain part of a redrawn 1st. The cities of Richmond and Petersburg would remain in the 4th.

The 16-member bipartisan commission, made up of eight citizen members and eight legislators, recently bogged down along partisan lines and failed to reach agreement on maps of districts for the House of Delegates and the state Senate, leaving that task to the state Supreme Court.

The commission is trying to arrive at one working map of the state’s congressional districts as a starting point. The panel faces an Oct. 25 deadline to get proposed congressional districts to the legislature for its consideration.

“I am fearful of asking each map drawer to do their own version of a congressional map and we get stuck again,” said co-chair Greta Harris, a Democratic citizen member. She added later: “It’s, I think, driving us all crazy having multiple maps that we’re trying to reconcile.”

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting Harris and co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko, a Republican citizen member, directed mapmakers to draw preliminary districts leaving the existing District 3 and District 4 largely intact. They asked Republican mapmakers to sketch three potential districts in largely Republican areas of Southside and Southwest Virginia and asked Democratic mapmakers to propose three districts in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia.

Harris stressed that the proposed districts are preliminary as the commission seeks a basis for discussion.

The current 3rd and 4th districts, represented by Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott and Don McEachin, already have passed muster with the courts. Democrats picked up the 4th District seat after a three-judge panel imposed a new Virginia congressional map in January 2016. The judges had concluded that Virginia legislators had packed too many African Americans into the 3rd District, diluting their voting impact in surrounding districts.

Both districts would require minor boundary changes to meet population requirements for congressional districts. The 3rd District is now slightly under the requirement and District 4 is slightly above.

But leaving those districts largely intact would have cascading effects on adjacent districts.

Both mapmakers would add several Chesapeake precincts from District 4 in order to get District 3 to the required population. The Republican mapmaker would add a few precincts from Henrico in order to restore the required population to the 4th District. The Democratic mapmaker would add more Chesterfield County residents to the 4th District.

5th District

The current 5th District sprawls from Fauquier County south through Charlottesville and Albemarle County to Danville and the North Carolina line.

The GOP’s proposed new 5th District would not extend to the edges of Northern Virginia. In addition to western Chesterfield and part of Henrico, it would include the counties of Goochland, Amelia and Fluvanna in greater Richmond, as well as a host of Southside localities.

The GOP’s proposed 6th District, currently represented by Republican Rep. Ben Cline, would add Charlottesville and Albemarle, both currently in the 5th District.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, questioned the GOP mapmaker’s cartography.

“If you take a little of Henrico County and put it all the way in with Southside ... that’s what starts to feel like a gerrymander,” because it is “cracking” suburbs that have been trending blue, he said.

“I can’t imagine somebody in Henrico feels like they have any congressional representation under that map,” Simon said.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, added that Chesterfield has undergone significant change in its demographics and in its voting patterns in the past decade, indicating that he thinks it would be misplaced in a district with Southside localities.

Richard Harrell, a GOP citizen member from South Boston in Halifax County, said he does not know that he likes the idea of the 5th District extending to the Richmond suburbs, but he said the commission gets in trouble when it questions political motives. Harrell said the commission has heard many complaints that the current 5th District is not compact.

Democrats now hold seven of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House seats. Commissioners said a key question they must resolve is what constitutes political fairness in a state in which Republicans have not won a statewide contest since 2009.

“Getting rid of gerrymandering sounds easy in theory,” said James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen member from Fairfax County. “When you’re looking at the details, it’s hard.”

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

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