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Panel discusses solutions to “bipartisan problem” of gerrymandering

Leading redistricting reform advocates and Virginia Commonwealth University students explored ways to end gerrymandering at a panel discussion hosted by the VCU Political Science Department.



By Zach Joachim

Leading redistricting reform advocates and Virginia Commonwealth University students explored ways to end gerrymandering at a panel discussion hosted by the VCU Political Science Department.

“Redistricting in Virginia: A Bipartisan Problem” brought together students and experts to discuss the practice in which legislators draw political districts with partisan intent. Panelists expressed optimism regarding the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia and around the country.

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, the commonwealth’s leading redistricting reform group, said the current process for redrawing legislative districts lacks transparency.

“It’s like sausage making, but worse, as to how they get these districts. Some of the lines are just abstract works of art that should be in the ICA,” Cannon said, referring to VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art.

Dr. John Aughenbaugh, a professor in the VCU Political Science Department, said the U.S. Constitution is not specific about redistricting, and that is the root cause of gerrymandering. The Constitution’s “time, place and manner clause,” Aughenbaugh said, gives states the power to determine election logistics. The panelists agreed that this is the foundational cause of traditional partisan redistricting practices commonly referred to as gerrymandering.

But Cannon argued the constitutional ambiguity can be employed to end the same practice it fostered.

“What works for redistricting in Iowa doesn’t work in California and might not work in Ohio. We can learn from all of them to improve redistricting in Virginia,” Cannon said. He said the Constitution “gives us the laboratory of democracy the states are supposed to be.”

This state-by-state approach to tackling gerrymandering has prompted a national climate in which states are looking to the courts for answers. Pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court could mandate anti-gerrymandering legislation in states such as Colorado. Cannon said cases such as Bethune-Hill in Virginia, which alleges district lines were drawn based on racial demographics, could come down “any day now” and expedite the process.

Participants in Thursday’s panel discussed possible solutions to gerrymandering, such as having an independent commission draw political boundaries. But Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, said the solutions many reform advocates seek may simply not exist.

“This is complicated, and there is no perfect answer, or else we’d already be there,” Dunnavant said. “If you get voices in the room so that there’s transparency and accountability, that’s the best we can do.”

The panelists urged redistricting reform advocates to conceptualize solutions as approaches and principles in drawing districts, rather than logistical absolutes. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, emphasized trust and transparency as foundational principles for reforming the redistricting process.

“Trust among the people we represent is extremely important,” Aird said. “Right now they don’t trust that the process includes things like transparency, or the removal of the ‘sausage making.’”

In addition to a collective insistence that a principled approach is the answer, Aird and the other panelists considered the establishment of independent commissions as a viable end goal for redistricting advocates to look toward.

“If moving to an independent structure actually builds that trust among the people we represent, it seems like that would be the thing to do,” Aird said.

The panelists went on to caution those in attendance about setting too much store in the idea of independence and nonpartisanship in the redistricting process. In an inherently political process, there will always be bias, they said.

“You’re not going to get rid of politics. We’re deciding who gets to vote in what jurisdiction,” Aughenbaugh said. “That’s a fundamental element of almost any definition of democratic politics – who gets to hold whom accountable.”

The panelists agreed that any hopes for an absolute solution would be idealistic. Rather, they emphasized the need for institutional accountability and transparency between voters and their representatives in a process long devoid of such principles.

“You want the rules to reflect our communities,” Cannon said. “Some will be blue, some red, some a shade of purple. But what’s important is that the communities are making the decisions.”

Dunnavant added, “There will never be a redistricting map that does not get contested. And so the conversation is a little unrealistic to think we can be proscriptive enough in law to create something that everyone can agree on.”



Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Senate panel shoots down bill that would make mask and vaccine mandates illegal

Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted down GOP legislation Monday that would have classified mask mandates and vaccine requirements as illegal discrimination.



Democrats in the Virginia Senate voted down GOP legislation Monday that would have classified mask mandates and vaccine requirements as illegal discrimination.

The measures, proposed by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, drew unanimous support from Republicans on the Senate’s General Laws Committee.

“It’s time to give people the freedom to breathe and the freedom of choice,” Chase told the panel.

Her bills would have prevented schools, businesses and other public places from requiring people to wear masks or disclose their vaccine status.

Witnesses who spoke in support of the legislation said they opposed masks for a variety of reasons. One mother told lawmakers that masks gave her child nightmares. One man said that masks gave him seizures. A third witness said masks made her dizzy.

“We are being discriminated against,” said Doris Knicks, who spoke to the panel remotely.

On vaccines, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OBGYN, called it “egregious and a complete violation of an individual’s right to privacy” for businesses like restaurants to require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We shouldn’t be using this as a litmus test for people to be able to get into stores,” she said.

Democrats on the panel noted vaccine requirements are not unique to COVID-19 and said businesses should have the authority to take steps to keep their employees safe.



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Virginia lawmakers propose decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”



By Ned Oliver

Two Virginia lawmakers have introduced legislation that would end felony penalties for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, citing the drug’s growing acceptance in medicinal contexts.

“It is increasingly a recognized treatment for refractory depression and PTSD,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner whose legislation would also decriminalize peyote, a cactus that contains the psychedelic compound mescalin. “It’s changed people’s lives.”

The legislation would reduce the penalty for possession — currently a Class 5 felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to a $100 civil fine.

Sens. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

The bill would put Virginia at the forefront of a nascent decriminalization movement that has primarily been limited to cities, including Washington, D.C. So far, Oregon is the only state to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin, an active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms.

The bill likely faces long odds, especially in the House of Delegates, where the newly reinstated Republican majority has historically resisted efforts to loosen drug laws. That said, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who leads the chamber’s Courts of Justice Committee, said he is open to hearing arguments in favor of the legislation.

“That is not something we’ve taken up before,” he said. “I’d be interested in hearing what (Adams) has to say.”

Even if the legislation were to pass, the drug would remain illegal, albeit with reduced penalties. That makes it unlikely medical providers in Virginia would embrace psychedelics as a treatment option, but Adams said it would nonetheless be a step in the right direction.

“If we decriminalize it, it allows people to learn,” she said. “It doesn’t egg people on (to use the drug). It tries to open the door for us to continue to study the positive effects on people’s mental health going forward.”



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Trump EPA head, coal lobbyist tapped as Virginia’s environmental chief

Wheeler pick sparks sharp opposition from Democrats and conservation groups.



By Sarah Vogelsong

Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin announced Trump EPA chief and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as his pick for Virginia’s next secretary of natural and historic resources. 

“Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels,” said Youngkin in a news release announcing not only his selection of Wheeler but his intention to replace long-standing Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor with wetland restoration firm head Michael Rolband. 

“Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer,” said Youngkin. 

The choice, which was first broken by Politico early Wednesday and announced by Youngkin’s transition team Wednesday afternoon, sent shock waves through the state’s environmental circles. 

“This is hands down the most extreme nomination for an environmental post in Virginia’s history and the absolute worst pick that the governor-elect could make,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “While we were optimistic we might be able to find some common ground with the new administration moving forward, this nomination makes it plainly clear that environmental protections are under attack in Virginia, and we are prepared to fight to defend them.”

Wheeler, who served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 until the end of President Donald Trump’s administration, was an outspoken proponent of environmental deregulation during his tenure, ruffling feathers even among his own agency scientists

The former coal lobbyist’s views on climate change have also troubled many environmentalists. While Wheeler during confirmation hearings for his EPA appointment said that “climate change is real” and “man has an impact on it,” he subsequently oversaw the unwinding of numerous regulations to reduce climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Among the actions taken during his tenure were the rollback of President Barack Obama’s never-enacted Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from coal plants as well as the Obama administration’s stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Current Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring sued Wheeler and his EPA at least six times over environmental issues.

Since the end of his EPA term, Wheeler has slowly inched into Virginia politics. In September, he spoke out against a five-cent plastic bag tax during a hearing before Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. In November, following sweeping Republican victories in Virginia elections, he was appointed to Youngkin’s transition team

Youngkin’s choice of Wheeler for the natural resources secretary position quickly provoked opposition from Democrats, who are already wary of the incoming governor’s environmental stance after Youngkin’s surprise December announcement that he intends to use executive action to pull Virginia out of a regional carbon market. Virginia’s participation in that market had been a top priority of Democrats when they took power in 2020. 

Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said Youngkin’s pick “makes clear that his administration will continue to fail Virginia on climate change as sea levels rise, rain events become more severe and record-setting temperatures threaten our economy and natural resources.” 

Where Democrats’ opposition will matter most, however, will be in the Senate, where the party maintains a narrow 21-19 edge and could conceivably block an appointment such as Wheeler’s. 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday that while Senate Democrats haven’t discussed the natural resources pick as a caucus, “I think a lot of our members are going to have very serious concerns” with Wheeler. 

“I would think any Republican member who’s in any kind of competitive suburban seat would really need to think twice about voting for someone like him given where Virginia’s been leading on environmental policy,” said Surovell. 

Jacqueline Hixson, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, said in an email that she couldn’t “say definitively whether any Youngkin appointments will be confirmed by the Senate.” 

Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group that was one of the main architects of Democratic climate legislation in 2020, said that “it is vital” that the Senate consider Wheeler’s record with EPA to “determine whether it aligns with the policy direction that the General Assembly has established in recent years.” 

Virginia under its last two years of Democratic control garnered national headlines for its efforts to combat climate change through decarbonization with a slate of policies more in line with those of Mid-Atlantic and New England states than its southern neighbors. 

Under Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic leadership of the General Assembly, Virginia pushed through measures committing the state’s electric grid to becoming carbon-free by 2045, authorizing participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-invest market and adopting the more stringent California auto emissions standards in place of federal ones. 

The energy industry has responded to the policy measures. According to a report from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, utility-scale solar is on track to become the state’s third largest source of electricity this year, displacing coal. In a major win for the state’s efforts to become the East Coast’s primary offshore wind hub, Siemens Gamesa this October announced it would build the nation’s first offshore wind turbine blade facility in Portsmouth

Both the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, have also pivoted toward renewables. Appalachian Power began drawing power from solar for the first time this fall and on Tuesday released what it calls its “most robust renewables plan to date,” with plans to add almost 500 megawatts of solar and wind over the next three years.

Dominion, which plans to build a massive 2.6 gigawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach, has almost entirely divested its natural gas business and is selling investors on what it describes as “the largest, the broadest in scope, the longest in duration and the most visible regulated decarbonization opportunity among U.S. utilities.” 

Republicans including Youngkin, however, have attacked many of the new policies as too costly for consumers and too risky for the electric grid, emphasizing a 2020 estimate by the State Corporation Commission that the Virginia Clean Economy Act will raise the average residential customer’s annual costs by $800 by 2030. During his campaign, Youngkin described the VCEA as “unworkable” and warned that the renewables transition would lead to “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.”



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