Va. House GOP releases redistricting proposal it says is 'race blind'; Democrats reject it as 'empty rhetoric'

Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates unveiled their own redistricting plan Tuesday, saying their proposed map is “race blind” and would fix racial gerrymandering without giving either party a significant political advantage.

The General Assembly has six weeks left to pass a new House electoral map after a federal court ruled over the summer that lawmakers unconstitutionally prioritized race during the 2011 redistricting process by drawing too many African-American voters into majority-minority districts. The 2011 map passed with bipartisan support.

It remains to be seen whether the GOP-controlled legislature will pass a map before the Oct. 30 deadline set by the court. But the introduction of the Republican plan puts another option on the table ahead of a House elections committee meeting next week. The bill’s patron is Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. 

House Democrats quickly rejected the proposal, calling it “empty rhetoric” from a GOP majority that they say is stalling for time.

Republicans are appealing the court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the lower court has rejected their request to delay the Oct. 30 deadline as the appeal process plays out.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has said he’s doubtful that the General Assembly will produce a map he can sign, and Attorney General Mark Herring has asked the court to prepare to draw its own map that can be enacted without passing the legislature.

Republicans said they used no racial data to draw their proposed map, a process that led some of the 11 challenged districts to gain black voters in the GOP plan.

Republicans also identified nine battleground districts, five currently held by Republicans and four represented by Democrats, that they said would see only small partisan changes in favor of the parties that control them, mostly less than 1.5 percentage points. Under a redistricting proposal Democrats released in late August, several districts saw double-digit swings in partisan makeup, according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project.

“While we maintain the constitutionality of the bipartisan plan adopted in 2011 and will continue to pursue our appeal to the Supreme Court, we are introducing a map today to demonstrate to the District Court and the public that you can, in fact, draw a politically neutral, race-blind remedial map,” House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said in a news release.

Cox said his caucus is willing to entertain other map proposals, but the one released Tuesday “demonstrates clearly what is possible.”

“If Democrats are serious, they’ll come to the table and engage in good-faith discussions,” Cox said. “If they don’t, then it will be clear that they are only interested in a self-serving map to bolster their political standing, whether it’s obtained through the legislative or judicial process.”

“Governor Northam and his team will analyze the majority’s effort,” said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel.

In a statement, the House Democratic Caucus suggested the map is “partisan gerrymandering as a solution to racial gerrymandering.”

“As per usual, it would appear this is just more empty rhetoric from the House Republicans as they continue to attempt to delay implementation of new maps that remedy their racial gerrymander,” said Democratic caucus Executive Director Trevor Southerland.

Cox said in his statement that the GOP map did not draw any two incumbent delegates into the same district. But the House Democratic Caucus said the GOP map combines two Newport News-area Democrats — Dels. Mike Mullin and Marcia Price — into one district due to apparent confusion about Price’s address.

When the Democrats released their map proposal in late August, House Minority Leader David J. Toscano originally said it drew no two incumbents together. That statement was incorrect, and Republicans said the combination of GOP incumbents into the same district was evidence of partisan intent.

Democrats now say they didn’t take lawmakers’ addresses into account at all in their map and have acknowledged Toscano was mistaken. A Cox spokesman said Republicans used Price’s “official address” on file with the House clerk’s office while drawing their map.

“If Delegate Price is living at a different address, we are not aware of that,” said Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh.

Price said the address Republicans used is a relative’s house where she has her official mail sent.

“It is not where I live nor where I am registered to vote today,” Price said.

Though the House election committee will meet next week to consider the redistricting proposals, the court has asked both parties to suggest names of an outside expert — called a “special master” in court parlance — who could redraw the map if the legislature fails to act. The deadline for those proposed names is Thursday, but the parties have until Sept. 25 to see if they can agree on an acceptable expert. 

gmoomaw@timesdispatch.com

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