Montgomery County Supervisor Sara Bohn writes to the Virginia Redistricting Commission with a quite logical idea. She wants the New River Valley kept intact in redistricting.
Montgomery County is currently split between two state Senate districts and three House of Delegates districts. She’d like to see the county kept intact and joined with other localities in the New River Valley. If you’re curious, Bohn is a Democrat but, as I pointed out in a previous column, Montgomery County would wind up in Republican-dominated districts if it were stitched back together.
In any case, Bohn adds another request: When it comes to congressional redistricting, she’d like to see the New River Valley attached to the Roanoke Valley – and further believes that this should include the entire Roanoke Valley-Alleghany planning district, on the grounds that “they are most similar to the New River Valley.”
Now things start to get interesting, because this touches on the biggest question facing mapmakers in this part of the state: Should the 9th District, which currently takes in Salem and part of Roanoke County and needs to expand, just go ahead and swallow the rest of the Roanoke Valley? Or should the 9th conspicuously avoid adding such a big metro area to an otherwise rural district? (I showed off three possible 9th District maps here.)
Notice, though, that Bohn doesn’t say the 9th should take in the Roanoke Valley. She simply says that she’d like to see the New River Valley, the Roanoke Valley, the Alleghany Highlands and Franklin County as part of the same district. That raises the prospect that maybe none of those places are in the 9th District, but a different district altogether. In fact, she goes on to suggest that “We (NRV and Roanoke Valley) have more in common with Lynchburg than southwest or south.”
That, by the way, would match the footprint of the GO Virginia economic development region – New River to Roanoke to Lynchburg. This isn’t an outrageous idea. In fact, there’s a lot of precedent for it. The New River Valley, Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg were part of the same congressional district until the early 1970s, when the 9th expanded to take in Montgomery County. There’s a good argument to be made for why the political maps should look like the economic facts on the ground: The economies of the New River and Roanoke Valleys overlap like Venn diagrams, and while Roanoke and Lynchburg often don’t see many commonalities, there’s a surprising amount of commuter traffic back and forth between the two cities. Workers may be ahead of the politicians.
So let’s explore Bohn’s idea: What would happen if the redistricting commission tried to draw a congressional district that united all those communities? The first answer is that it would force mapmakers to draw a 9th District that extended even farther east into Southside than it does now (it now takes in Martinsville and part of Henry County) and even farther east than one of the proposed maps I offered up a few days ago. A 9th District that goes all the way to Danville may be politically untenable – one that goes even farther east might really be a no-go. Creating a New River-to-Lynchburg district really forces mapmakers to create a district that unites the rest of Southwest Virginia and most of Southside in a single district. A district that goes all the way from the Cumberland Gap to the outskirts of Richmond seems a really bad idea. But something like that would be an inevitable trade-off for our New River-to-Lynchburg district because there’s really nowhere else for the 9th to go.
For now, let’s set that question aside and get on with our mapmaking. Our first question: Where does this district begin? More to the point, should we include Pulaski County? This raises one of those existential questions: Is Pulaski part of Southwest? Or is it part of the New River Valley? The answer is really “yes” and “yes.” If we want to replicate the GO Virginia map, let’s include Pulaski – and Giles. If we start there and go north to Alleghany County, and east to Appomattox County, we have 779,658 people – not that far short of the idea of 784,672 for each congressional district.
That means a New River-to-Lynchburg congressional district is quite doable.
The point is we could draw a very logically shaped district that unites the New River Valley, the Roanoke Valley, the Alleghany Highlands and Lynchburg – if we’re prepared to draw an illogically shaped district that puts far Southwest Virginia into the same district as the heart of Southside. I’ve done the math and such a district would have to run as far east as Goochland County and Brunswick County to get the numbers required.
Politically, well, politics hasn’t been a consideration here – logical geography and economics are. But for those curious, this map would put three Republican congressmen in the same district – Morgan Griffith of Salem, Ben Cline of Botetourt County, Bob Good of Campbell County. It would create an open seat for that elongated Southwest-Southside district that would be a strongly Republican district. And this logical, although fanciful, district we just drew would also tilt Republican. Montgomery County votes somewhat Democratic, but that Democratic margin would get wiped out by its Republican neighbors. And Roanoke’s Democratic margin gets erased by the Republican margin in Roanoke County. Democrats would probably always entertain hopes that they could win this district, but they’d be wrong except under the most unusual circumstances.
That brings me to the final map. Is it possible to draw a Democratic congressional district in this part of Virginia? Come back next week and find out. The answer might surprise you.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.