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Proposals in General Assembly seek to end gerrymandering in Virginia

An assortment of bills designed to adjust standards for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts could be the beginning of the end for gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.

Capital News Service

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By Zach Joachim

An assortment of bills designed to revise standards for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts could be the beginning of the end for gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.

Gerrymandering, the practice of politicians redrawing electoral districts to gain an advantage, has drawn attention and disdain in recent years. North Carolina’s congressional map was declared unconstitutional last week by a panel of federal judges, who ruled legislators had drawn it with “invidious partisan intent.”

House Bill 276, proposed by Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, would create a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The commission would determine the criteria for remedial redistricting plans if a court declares any congressional or legislative district unlawful. Under the current system, the legislators themselves determine the criteria for redrawing these lines.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years in accordance with the U.S. census, but a number of federal court cases have the potential to require immediate redistricting in certain Virginia localities.

“I think it favors both parties to be able to make sure that we have the body and the rules available by which we would be able to draw lines should a court case come down a certain way,” Rasoul said. “I look forward to being able to work with Republicans and Democrats to get this done.”

Rasoul said redistricting reform hinges upon a “fundamental question of fairness” that he believes the majority of Virginians agree upon, regardless of party affiliation.

So far this session, legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – have introduced about 20 bills that would affect how political districts are drawn. They include:

  • HB 205, which would establish criteria for remedial redistricting.
  • HB 158, which would authorize the General Assembly to make technical adjustments to existing redistricting standards.
  • Senate Bill 106, which would create a size limit for congressional and state legislative districts.

Additionally, lawmakers have proposed eight constitutional amendments. The amendments – which require approval from the General Assembly this year and next, then approval by voters – would fully prohibit gerrymandering.

But this session, legislators must craft the state budget for the next two years, and it’s not realistic for them to approve a constitutional amendment as well, according to advocates of redistricting reform such as Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021.

However, Cannon is optimistic that measures such as Rasoul’s proposed commission can be steps toward ending gerrymandering. Cannon said support for the initiative is widespread, suggesting “70-some” percent of Virginians desire redistricting reform.

“This could be a dry run for setting up a commission, letting them do their work under good rules and a transparent process,” Cannon said. “By this time next year, if the process is good, we can adopt it; if it needs tweaks, we can do that, too.”

Cannon believes the election of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and an influx of new Virginia legislators reflect a “good-government wave.” Cannon said the political climate is not conducive to incumbent protection schemes like gerrymandering.

“There’s definitely reason for optimism. This is not a nerdy little issue anymore. This is the ethical issue in politics,” Cannon said. “The overall goal here is a constitutional amendment for Virginia so that we can take it out of the hands of the politicians, have good clear rules about keeping communities together and have transparency in the process.”

Although advocates such as Cannon are enthusiastic about the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia, political experts are more skeptical.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, noted that officials elected under the current redistricting system are not likely to support changes such as interim commissions, much less a constitutional amendment in 2019.

“Despite strong public opinion in favor of redistricting reform, the elected officials who benefited from the current system have so little enthusiasm to change it,” Rozell said.

“Further, not everyone is convinced that a reformed system will do any better than the one that we have now. Public opinion may be in favor (of redistricting reform), but this is not an issue that generates much citizen passion. With no strong public passion on the issue, there isn’t a lot of pressure on elected officials to push major reforms.”

Nevertheless, Rasoul believes there is bipartisan support for tackling gerrymandering in Virginia and establishing new ways to draw political districts.

“What we need is not Republicans or Democrats fighting as to who’s going to draw the unfair lines,” Rasoul said. “It’s once and for all creating rules and boundaries so that districts are drawn fairly given population, political boundaries, common communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act and a number of different criteria that need to be considered.”

Cannon is confident that the bills before the General Assembly can act as stepping stones toward the goal of eliminating gerrymandering in the commonwealth.

“We have a big opportunity this session to have this conversation in preparation for getting the final product ready to go this time next year,” Cannon said. “The reason they’ve been able to get away with this is it’s a dirty deed done once a decade that they think we all forget about. We’re not forgetting anymore.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Stoney: City to “cautiously move” into Phase 1 of reopening plan on Friday, May 29th

On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan. Masks will be required in all indoor spaces and restaurants will be asked to voluntarily connect patrons’ information for contact tracing purposes.

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On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan.

“When I look at the picture in totality, given the added tools at our disposal, the current trends in our local data and my faith in Richmonders to look out for one another, I believe that Richmond can cautiously move into Phase 1 on Friday, May 29,” said Mayor Stoney at Thursday’s press conference.

During the first delay that the City of Richmond requested, the Stoney administration and Richmond City Health District expanded testing efforts, implemented a contact tracing effort, ensured every COVID-19 positive Richmonder will be able to isolate safely and securely with supported isolation, and advocated for a statewide mask requirement.

The city initially requested a modified Phase 1 reopening that maintained restrictions on places of worship and personal care and grooming services, as mass gatherings and close personal contact for extended periods of time both significantly increase chance of community spread.

Because the governor denied the city’s modified plan for reopening, Richmond will move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan, with strong recommendations reflecting the mayor’s proposed modifications. Local guidance and helpful links to state guidance are available here. The state has yet to provide guidance on what Phases 2 and 3 will include.

The mayor detailed a number of best practices for residents and business owners to ensure that the city moves into Phase 1 cautiously. The best practices emerged from conversations between the Stoney administration and members of the business community, faith leadership, and health professionals.

  1. All residents who are medically able to should wear a face-covering that covers the mouth and nose when in public spaces. The wearing of a face covering does not negate the need for 6-foot social distancing.
  2. Faith communities should continue to meet virtually if possible. If in-person meetings are absolutely necessary, the mayor strongly recommends faith groups meet outside while practicing strict social distancing and enforcing the face-covering requirement.
  3. Food and drink establishments that choose to offer outdoor service at half capacity are asked to request a name and contact information of patrons who dine in for contact tracing purposes. This practice is voluntary for both patrons and restaurants. However, collecting this small amount of information for each dine-in party will go far in assisting the Richmond City Health District in tracing and containing outbreaks. Guidance on this practice is available here.

The mayor made two requests of the state: to continue to assist the city in further expanding testing capacity and in providing adequate face-coverings and hand sanitizer throughout the capital city.

“Quite frankly, we’re going to need more support from the state for our residents and our businesses to reopen safely and sustainably,” the mayor noted in his appeal. “I make these recommendations and requests of the state because, as has been my mantra this entire pandemic. Reopening should be slow and steady.”

“When public health is on the line, blindly pushing forward is not an option. Decisions must be thoughtful, and they must be based in our collective knowledge of and love for our city.”

See more reopening guidance for local businesses here: www.rvastrong.org/reopeningguidance.

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Governor Northam announces face covering requirement, denies Richmond’s request to modify phase one reopening

Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday signed Executive Order Sixty-Three, requiring Virginians to wear face coverings in public indoor settings to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the same time, the governor denied a request by Mayor Levar Stoney to place restrictions on places of worship and personal grooming businesses when Richmond enters phase one of reopening Friday.

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Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday signed Executive Order Sixty-Three, requiring Virginians to wear face coverings in public indoor settings to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Governor also directed the Department of Labor and Industry to develop emergency temporary standards to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19.

The governor also signed an amended Executive Order Fifty-One, extending Virginia’s state of emergency declaration.

The new executive order supports previous actions the Governor has taken to respond to COVID-19 in Virginia, and ensures workers and consumers are protected as the Commonwealth gradually eases public health restrictions. The Governor’s statewide requirement for wearing face coverings is grounded in science and data, including recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that individuals should wear face coverings in public settings. Face coverings do not take the place of public health guidelines to maintain six feet of physical distancing, increase cleaning and sanitation, and wash hands regularly.

“We are making progress to contain the spread of COVID-19 and now is not the time for Virginians to get complacent,” said Governor Northam. “Science shows that face coverings are an effective way to prevent transmission of the virus, but wearing them is also a sign of respect. This is about doing the right thing to protect the people around us and keep everyone safe, especially as we continue to slowly lift public health restrictions in our Commonwealth.”

A face covering includes anything that covers your nose and mouth, such as a mask, scarf, or bandana. Medical-grade masks and personal protective equipment should be reserved for health care professionals. Under the Governor’s executive order, any person age ten and older must wear a mask or face covering at all times while entering, exiting, traveling through, and spending time in the following public settings:

  • Personal care and grooming businesses
  • Essential and non-essential brick and mortar retail including grocery stores and pharmacies
  • Food and beverage establishments
  • Entertainment or public amusement establishments when permitted to open
  • Train stations, bus stations, and on intrastate public transportation, including in waiting or congregating areas
  • State and local government buildings and areas where the public accesses services
  • Any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within six feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than ten minutes

Exemptions to these guidelines include while eating and drinking at a food and beverage establishment; individuals who are exercising; children under the age of two; a person seeking to communicate with a hearing-impaired person, for which the mouth needs to be visible; and anyone with a health condition that keeps them from wearing a face covering. Children over the age of two are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering to the extent possible.

At the same time, Northam denied a request by the Stoney administration that sought to modify the City of Richmond’s move into phase one by placing additional restrictions on places of worship and salons, spas, and other personal grooming businesses.

The governor responded saying that Richmond should adhere to the same phase one regulations as other cities and counties in the Commonwealth beginning this Friday, May 29th.

The full text of Executive Order Sixty-Three and Order of Public Health Emergency Five is available here. The text of amended Executive Order Fifty-One is available here.

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Underground Kitchen’s New Food Relief Nonprofit Surpasses 10K Meals Distributed

The food relief operation currently has nine chefs and two bakers working in church kitchens to produce homemade soup and bread, soon to include family-style pot pies, pastas, and casserole dishes to help sustain families for several days.

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Great news from the folks at Underground Kitchen.

In less than two months, the UGK Community First Project – officially registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit in early May – has provided more than 10,000 nourishing meals to people throughout metro Richmond, primarily to those who are food insecure or whose jobs put them at high risk of exposure during the COVID-19 crisis. The Community First Project was formed by Michael Sparks and Kate Houck, the CEO and COO respectively of Underground Kitchen, an acclaimed Richmond, Va.-based experiential, roving dinner series that’s now on hold until it is safe to resume operation.

The UGK Community First Project initially launched on March 16, 2020, right after Underground Kitchen paused its dinner series in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “We saw an immediate need in our community created by the crisis – both for healthy meals to be delivered to those in need, as well as for those in the food industry to have access to work in a safe environment to support their families,” says Houck.

The first 175 meals were delivered to individuals impacted by the crisis and front-line health workers in the community the week of March 23, 2020. By May 11, 2020 that number had increased to 2,000 meals for the week, distributed to food insecure communities, those who are home-bound or quarantined, front-line health workers, first responders, families and care-givers and others throughout Richmond.

UGK Community First has scaled up its response to help through the generous support of Episcopal Diocese of Virginia member churches in metro Richmond. The food relief operation currently has nine chefs and two bakers working in church kitchens to produce homemade soup and bread, soon to include family-style pot pies, pastas, and casserole dishes to help sustain families for several days.

“We are conscious of the continued impact of COVD-19 and are committed to doing what we can to address the need for meals in the community for the duration of its influence,” says Houck.

“However, we have also seen that, regardless of the agencies that already exist in the region, there continues to be a deep need for healthy, unprocessed, consistently delivered meals even in the best of times. Therefore, we see UGK Community First continuing long after this crisis passes, with a focus on distributing meals to families and children who live in a constant food insecure environment, as well as supplementing other programs who are doing the same,” she adds.

In addition to the Episcopal churches, over the past several weeks, Underground Kitchen has worked with a coalition of community partners, donors, and volunteers including: Better2gether RVA, CARITAS, GoochlandCares, La Casa de la Salud RVA, the Armstrong Renaissance community, Virginia Supportive Housing, and CultureWorks Richmond (through the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund).

UGK Community First has also supplied meals to: St. Mary’s Hospital, Memorial Regional Medical Center, Richmond Community Hospital (all part of Bon Secours), McGuire VA Medical Center, Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Richmond, Richmond Ambulance Authority, and The Doorways.

For more information about the UGK Community First Project food relief operation, please visit theundergroundkitchen.org.

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