RICHMOND — Just six days before the newly formed Virginia Redistricting Commission’s hard deadline to finalize the new state Senate and House of Delegates district maps, the panel on Monday began its series of virtual public hearings with officially accepting opinions from residents of Southwest Virginia.
Of the dozen or so who called in, several expressed concern and even consternation with the inevitable loss of state representation in the wake of the 2020 census, which recorded that 15 counties west of Montgomery County lost population in the last decade. “Our population decline presents a harsh reality in the House map with the loss of a district. This is of great concern to me, it leaves only four delegates to represent a very large landmass,” said Washington County resident Cathleen Lowe, a former mayor of Abingdon.
A recent map drawn by a Democratic consultant would pair two Republican incumbents living in Washington County – Dels. Israel O’Quinn and Will Wampler – due to a dwindling population in the area.
Beth Rhinehart, president of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, called the loss of a delegate seat a disappointment that required countermeasures. “No region would ever advocate for diminished representation, but the population loss is a tough reality and something that we are desperately trying to reverse through a number of economic initiatives that highlight all that our region does have to offer,” Rhinehart said.
Monday’s meeting at times left commissioners confused because it wasn’t always immediately clear which map specifically a caller was weighing in on. Because the panel in a meeting on Saturday had failed to agree on a single set of maps, citizens had more than 40 different maps to look at – 21 for the House of Delegates and 20 for the state Senate are currently available for public view on the commission’s website. For residents of Southwest Virginia following the process, studying the maps may not have been as challenging because the map drawers largely found consensus in the southwestern part of the state.
Chuck Slemp, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Wise County and the city of Norton, praised the commission’s consultants for drawing his jurisdiction wholly contained into one Senate district (SD-40) and one House district (HD-100) in the various maps. “Wise County and the city of Norton are a tight knit community with a combined population of around 40,000 people, yet currently we are split between two Senate districts and two House districts,” Slemp said. “We love the opportunity to work with all four legislators, but it really just makes sense to unify my home community as a community of interest as shown in the draft maps currently before the commission.”
Beyond this jurisdiction, both maps reflect important economic ties among certain localities, particularly the Senate map, Slemp added. “Lee, Wise, Scott and Norton are one judicial circuit, so we have the same judges that rotate between the four jurisdictions. We share a regional jail facility, we have common economic ties. It makes sense for those districts and community ties to be in one Senate district and one House district.”
Thomas Wright, president of Southwest Virginia Community College in Cedar Bluff, stressed the importance to not allow redrawn districts to sever community ties. “I think there was some consideration of splitting our service area into other areas, but I would like to keep the area together because it makes things a lot easier for the areas that we serve,” Wright said.
A longtime advocate for more compact districts, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, sharply criticized a map presented by a Democratic consultant Saturday that would split his Cave Spring neighborhood, and instead put him in a district that will include tens of thousands of very Republican voters that live pretty far from me in Giles County and Bath County, “not folks that we would regularly run into at the grocery store or would have quick access to those of us nearby.”
This proposed new district “makes no sense besides serving partisan purposes,” Suetterlein said. “I currently represent a district that was similarly drawn 10 years ago which makes it much more difficult for folks to access their legislator, so I would hope that this commission, which was formed to prevent gerrymandering that happened in years past, would reject this map.”
Russell County Supervisor Lou Ann Wallace – a resident of St. Paul, which straddles the Russell County and the Wise County line – said she was glad that “we and our sister counties are united in one” under a new state Senate District 40, as proposed in the drafts by both map drawers. “For a very long time, county and jurisdictional lines have served as a harsh dividing point, particularly in these economic development times,” Wallace said. “However, in recent years many of us have realized that we can be stronger together and in that vein, we have worked to build communities of interest around common goals and shared values on a regional basis.”
Yet it was disappointing for her to see how districts are numbered in the proposed House maps, Wallace added. For years it had been customary for House districts to be numbered starting in Southwest Virginia, but the current drafts have the numbers ending in Southwest Virginia – current House District 1 would become House District 100 based on these maps.
“People here already have the impression that we are last, if not an afterthought for the rest of the commonwealth. And while it may sound silly, and it is a perception thing, I’m afraid that remembering the districts in this manner will unfortunately reinforce those feelings here,” Wallace said.
Public hearings will continue all week, and the full commission will reconvene Friday.