RICHMOND — Virginia’s newly formed redistricting commission last week reached an impasse in its mission to come up with new General Assembly maps, but the 16-member panel still agreed on Monday to move forward with redrawing the state’s 11 congressional districts by the Oct. 25 deadline mandated by the state Constitution.
But the aftershocks of Friday’s chaotic gathering, during which three Democratic members walked out after Republicans rejected a new state Senate map proposed by Democrats, still rippled through Monday’s virtual meeting. State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, a commission member, stated that the events from Friday left him “in shock” and angry. “I spent the weekend going through what would be referred to as the different stages of grief,” McDougle said.
Almost as an afterthought, Del. Les Adams, a Republican from Pittsylvania County, had sparked a new debate about two hours into Monday’s meeting when he wondered out loud about “the status of the commission” in the aftermath of what he and others understood as the resignation of Democratic Co-Chair Greta Harris.
“I’m not aware of any reason that a verbal resignation is not effective in Virginia, and I think that’s going to be important before we come back and start taking votes so that we have some clarification as to what exactly we have here,” Adams said.
Harris said Friday that the work of the commission was done and that she had no choice but to “remove myself from the commission,” a statement that caused some confusion about her intentions. Harris later clarified that she had only left the meeting but had not actually resigned from the panel.
A subsequent meeting for Saturday morning was canceled. But Harris attended Monday’s virtual meeting, where she remained mostly quiet for the first half, reiterating that she had made clear to staff and to the media that she had not stepped down from the commission. “Certainly you can do whatever you want to from a legal exploration, but from my perspective I never resigned,” she told Adams.
The exchange prompted more bickering among panel members, with both sides accusing each other of having caused the stalemate. “I thought Friday was a total sandbag, a total setup, when I saw a map that looked to me like a very clear political gerrymander, that I saw in Senate maps 10 years ago – that felt to me that there was not a willingness to compromise,” McDougle said of the map proposed by Democrats which failed on a party line vote.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said that Adams attempted to “stir the pot and disrupt the commission’s work,” and Commissioner James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen member from Fairfax, accused Republicans of throwing “another wrench into the game.” State Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican from Franklin County and the commission’s westernmost member, said that the nature of the Adams inquiry into Harris’ resignation may have been to make sure that the commission was still on solid legal footing after her remarks on Friday.
“Someone might say, by her actions, this happened, and so anything we did thereafter was not right, just or legal.” Stanley said. “I take no position as to whether she resigned or not, but I understood her frustration and I was disappointed. But when three of our commissioners got up and left, when we were trying to find a way to continue and move forward, that end result wasted two days.”
Henry Chambers, a professor for constitutional law at the University of Richmond School of Law who follows the proceedings closely, said in an interview Monday that Harris would have to have followed the commission’s process for resigning, if she wanted to step down. “When she said ‘our work here is done,’ that was in the context of state redistricting. She didn’t say she’d resign, and I don’t think she put anything in writing,” Chambers said. “And if no one has started with the process of finding a replacement for Co-Chair Harris, that’s because nobody thought she actually resigned.”
Mackenzie Babichenko, the commission’s Republican co-chair, still asked counsel to provide a legal ruling on Harris’ status by the afternoon. Moving forward, she urged her colleagues to learn to trust each other. “Each side was not on the offense, but on the defense, and suspicious of the other side’s motives, and that ‘s kind of how we got here, and it was difficult to recover from,” Babichenko said. “Both sides thought the same about the other, so we need to back up and have a conversation.”
Because of the virtual nature of Monday’s meeting, there were no votes. But members were hopeful that a consensus on congressional districts was still possible. The panel meets again in person on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the panel discussed releasing a statement to put the Supreme Court of Virginia on notice that they will have to redraw the General Assembly districts. Abrenio said that having the maps being drawn by the court is not a failure, because it is exactly what the Constitutional amendment approved by Virginia voters last year intended, should the commission fail. “It’s essentially a stopgap,” Abrenio said.
Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.