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Senate redistricting proposal shifts to protect some incumbents; commission split on Hampton Roads
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Senate redistricting proposal shifts to protect some incumbents; commission split on Hampton Roads

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Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton (from left), Greta Harris of Richmond and Mackenzie Babichenko of Hanover County attended an August redistricting commission meeting. Harris and Babichenko are the commission’s co-chairs.

Greta Harris, co-chair of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, provides an update on the proposed state Senate map

The compromise map came together behind the scenes over the weekend, the product of negotiations between party-allied staff and the co-chairs of the commission.

The compromise map presented on Monday did not settle a key sticking point among commission members: the creation of districts where racial minorities can elect candidates of their choice.

The jointly produced map included three Black-majority districts and two that come close to the 50% mark, and six additional districts where a combination of racial minority groups make up the majority.

If the 2020 census were applied to the maps now in effect, it would yield four Black-majority districts and eight minority-majority districts, commission staff said Monday.

One key feature of the newly proposed map is that it reduced from initial proposals the number of incumbents who would have found themselves running in primaries or party contests against fellow legislators.

The panel’s co-chairs directed the move despite statements from some commission members that such protection should come at the end of the process.

In Northern Virginia, co-chair Greta Harris said, the only incumbents who are still paired in proposed districts with other incumbents are Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Finance Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who are both planning to retire rather than seeking additional four-year terms in 2023. (Saslaw would be in the same district as Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax. Howell would be in the same district as Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax.)

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, who used to sit on the commission, and Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, would be in the same district, but Newman has said he is unlikely to run again.

Sen. Jenn Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, would be in the same district as Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, but Kiggans is running for Congress next year, seeking the seat held by Rep. Elaine Luria, D-2nd.

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Aside from districts in which incumbents have suggested they might not seek re-election, only one conflict remained: the pairing of Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in a proposed district with Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.

The commission took a single vote Monday night to tentatively approve a Senate map for Hampton Roads drawn by Republican staff. That map would have shifted some competitive seats westward, potentially making them more amenable to Republican candidates.

That vote was eventually reversed due to the absence of Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. The commission verbally agreed to leave the configuration of the area open to further debate.

Harris described the area as the “stickiest wicket” among the issues dividing the commission.

The commission found room for agreement on the region Monday, asking the map-drawing staff to keep the city of Portsmouth in one district, at the urging of Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.

Barker said it was not “the best look” to split two populous localities with sizable Black populations.

“We’ve done packing and cracking, and we’ve left that in the past,” he said.

The commission expects to continue working on the Senate map throughout the week, with another meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

The commission has until Oct. 10 — less than two weeks — to finish its maps for the Virginia House and Senate. It has until Oct. 25 — fewer than 30 days — to produce a map for the state’s U.S. House seats, which it hasn’t started to work on.

Which party stands to benefit most will be the ultimate sticking point between commission members as the legislative maps come together.

Two Democratic lawmakers on Monday argued that the party’s winning streak in statewide elections dating to 2009 suggests that a map slightly benefiting Democrats would meet the criteria of not “unduly favoring” one party or another.

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In recent years, the GOP has lost control of both legislative chambers, essentially locking the party out of control. An analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project suggested that an “optimally fair map, in light of Virginia’s legally mandated redistricting criteria and Virginians’ voting behavior, should yield between 24 and 28 Democratic seats” in the 40-member state Senate.

The map the commission started off with on Monday has 19 seats that lean Democrat, 15 seats that lean Republican, and six competitive districts, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

“There are about two seats, two additional seats that could be added to the Democratic base based upon the three maps that have been presented here. And I think there are opportunities clearly to do that,” Barker said.

Christopher Bartolomucci, a consultant for the Republicans, said the focus should be on applying neutral criteria and creating competitive districts.

“I think the commission’s work to date has been focused on applying the neutral criteria, and not trying to put a thumb on the scale in terms of one party or the other,” he said. “And I would think that would satisfy your requirement of not unduly favoring or disfavoring each political party.”

Co-chair Greta Harris and Sen. Ryan McDougle talk about making redistricting map the sausage

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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