Monday, March 21, 2011

Please split up my 'community of interest'

It's redistricting time.

The General Assembly meets next month to draw the new lines for the state's 11 Congressional districts, 100 House of Delegates district and 40 State Senate districts.

This year we've had an appetizer, since the governor's commission on redistricting (which only has advisory status), college students participating in a redistricting contest, and the incumbent members of Congress have given us sneak peeks at maps they like.

To no one's surprise, the plan the congressmen came up with protects all 11 incumbents, which requires at least two egregious gerrymanders: the continuation of the snake-like 3rd District which winds its way down I-64 in search of African-American voters, and a new "Gerry-mander" in the 11th to give Rep. Gerry Connolly a more Democratic district than the one he almost lost last November.

The other maps are more interesting because they try to create compact, contiguous districts without regard for politics and try to keep "communities of interest" intact. (That's not something the congressmen care about, they created a 5th District that includes Danville and parts of Loudoun County).

That was one of the governor's charges to his commission. It also echoes the major concern I've always heard expressed by local government leaders, and by voters, in the previous rounds of redistricting. "I just hope they don't split up my city/county."

That concern is very important to people. But I've never understood why.

Perhaps they don't understand democracy. In a democracy the side with the most votes wins. So, why wouldn't you want to maximize your number of votes?

If I were a county administrator or a city manager, why wouldn't I want two congressmen looking after my locality's interests rather than one?

It's even more important in the General Assembly.

Because Virginia is a Dillon rule state, local governments often have to ask for permission from the General Assembly to do even routine things. That means putting a bill in. Often, if it's a bill that only affects that one community, it requires a supermajority to pass.

Why wouldn't you want to go into that process with as many votes in your pocket as possible?

It seems to me that those localities that are represented by the most legislators have the best record of getting what they want.

Let's take two examples: the state's most populous locality, Fairfax County, and the capital city, Richmond.

Fairfax is split up between 17 (!) House of Delegates districts -- represented by 12 Democrats and 5 Republicans -- and nine Senate districts, all held by Democrats.

That's right, nearly a quarter of the Senate represents part of Fairfax County. I wouldn't be surprised if they got the extra seat to get them to 25% in this round of redistricting.

If Fairfax wants to pass a bill (assuming it's not special legislation) and can get its delegation to agree (and state legislators, for the most part, are at least as loyal to their home localities as they are to their parties), they only need to find 34 votes out of the 83 delegates who don't represent part of the county and 12 votes among the 31 out-of-Fairfax senators.

Consequently, Fairfax has a pretty good record of getting what it wants.

Richmond doesn't have the same size delegation, because it's much smaller, only 200,000 people as opposed to more than a million. But Richmond has six votes in the House -- four Democrats and two Republicans,
 and four in the Senate, split evenly between the parties.

That's just the city itself, adding in the surrounding counties of Chesterfield and Henrico adds another seven delegates and two senators, mostly Republican. So, if they all cooperate on an issue of regional concern -- not a given in the Richmond area -- they can exert a force similar to Fairfax.

That's why an attempt by Gov Bob McDonnell this year to punish VCU for increasing tuition had no shot. VCU is too important to economic development in Richmond, which is important to economic development in the region. And the region has a lot of votes in the General Assembly.

What if McDonnell had tried the same thing with the College of William & Mary? Williamsburg has one vote in the Senate and one in the House, both members of the minority caucus in their respective chambers. Assuming the legislators in surrounding counties stood solid with their Williamsburg colleagues, that's three votes in the House, one vote in the Senate. One of those votes is Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd), the Senate Minority Leader, who is as shrewd a horse trader as the General Assembly has seen since Dick Cranwell left. He might have been able to cut a deal with Senate Democrats to kill the proposal. But he'd have had to work at it.

It also helps to have friends on both sides of the aisle, as Richmond and -- to a lesser extent -- Fairfax do.

Seniority is a plus as well. Fairfax has the Senate Majority Leader and a number of committee chairmen.  Richmond has the chair of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and the House Majority Leader lives just down the road in Colonial Heights.

Aside from Norment, the Historic Triangle doesn't have much seniority. When former Del. Phil Hamilton (R-93rd), the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the House Health, Welfare & Institutions Committee had to resign his seat due to a conflict of interest scandal it severely impacted the area's clout.

So, if I lived in Williamsburg, I'd be hoping that the city's two precincts got split, both in the House and the Senate. But it's not likely to happen.

Cross posted to All Politics Is Local.

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