By Tracy Kennedy
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Community leaders and concerned citizens turned out en masse Monday to protest proposed redistricting maps at the General Assembly’s final public hearing.
“Because of elections this year, unlike in most state, the redistricting timetable here is short,” Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, explained as she led the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections’ public forum. “It’s only been one month since Virginia received corrected census numbers.”
Howell; Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian; Delegate Chris Jones, R-Suffolk; and Delegate Jim Morrissey, D-Highland Springs, all plan on submitting their redistricting maps for consideration by the House and Senate over the next few weeks.
Citizens from Hanover County accused Howell’s map of being partisan and faulted her for splitting the county into thirds.
“We have a specific community in Hanover, and for the little country town of Ashland to be paired with the urban centers of Richmond and Varina doesn’t seem right to anyone that I’ve talked to,” said Angela Kelly-Wiecek, head of the Hanover Republican Committee.
“I believe this is an egregious miscarriage of representation in every sense. I urge you to go back to the go back to the drawing board.”
“To me, [gerrymandering] is from another age,” said Todd Vander Pol, a businessman from Hanover. “I really didn’t expect to see it, but when I look at Northern Virginia, the Tidewater and Central Virginia, it seems silly and outrageous.”
Residents from Virginia Beach also voiced concerns, saying they would lose a Senate seat and minority representation would be diluted.
“I want to remind you that the commonwealth of Virginia stands for the commonwealth of all of its citizens,” Venus Marshall, a Virginia Beach resident, said as she appealed to the committee to ensure that minorities would receive representation. “Take that commitment to honor the people that entrusted you to make these decisions.”
“You want a yardstick for gerrymandering?” Carl Wright, another Virginia Beach resident asked the committee. “Come to our city! It’s been gerrymandered, gerrymandered, re-gerrymandered, and gerrymandered again …
“I’m asking you all today, when you look at the city of Virginia Beach, please consider all of the citizens with a fair and true representation. That’s all I ask.”
The hearing was held by the House and Senate elections committees as the General Assembly convened for a special session on redistricting. Every 10 years, legislators must redraw political boundaries to account for population changes reflected in new census numbers.
Minorities from various parts of Virginia spoke at the hearing, appealing to the committee to consider their growing numbers in the state.
“I’m here to talk about the Latino community in Virginia. We have yet to elect a Latino to this distinguished body,” said Andrew Rivera, an attorney from Alexandria and president of the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia. “I urge that we concentrate and not dilute the Latino community in your districts.”
“They don’t feel like there’s representation there,” said Alex Vargas, another redistricting critic. “They don’t feel like there’s a reason to vote because they’re not seeing changes in their communities.”
Three students from George Mason University showed the committee their map, which won the Virginia Redistricting Competition. Morrissey plans to introduce that map in the House. Nicholas O’Boyle, one of the map’s designers, said the students’ map reduced the splits of counties to 161 from more than 300 in Howell’s map.
As the meeting wound to a close, members of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition, sporting white T-shirts emblazoned with a hissing cobra, lined up to voice their concerns. Among their ranks was James Ukrop, former chairman of First Market Bank and former chairman of the Ukrop’s grocery chain.
“I think this a real opportunity to take the leadership position in our nation,” Ukrop said. “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for the nation to read about the Virginia legislature stepping forward and going the right thing? You are the leaders in our state, and I hope you do the right thing.”