When the Virginia General Assembly meets next January, it will be a much different body than the one that adjourned last month. In addition to the retirement of giants like Senator Dick Saslaw and Delegate Ken Plum, dozens of other members are not seeking reelection, are running for a different office, or are paired with another incumbent in a seat that only one of them can represent next year.
It’s mathematically certain that at least 30 or close to a full third of the 100 member House of Delegates will be brand new members when they take the oath in January of 2024.
Why such a major shift? Some of it is just timing. Saslaw and Plum are both in their 80s, plus Senate Finance Chair Janet Howell had always planned for this to be her final term. A much larger portion of the turnover is a result of the redistricting fiasco brought on by the ill-considered Constitutional Amendment which left the task to a bi-partisan, bi-cameral hybrid legislative/citizen commission.
Despite my every effort to offer a palatable compromise to the GOP members, the Commission deadlocked, meaning the Supreme Court of Virginia and their two special masters took over. The Special Masters looked at the General Assembly’s legal criteria establishing guidelines for drafting their new map and did not find any authority to consider incumbent addresses or to avoid incumbent pairs when creating new districts.
As a result, nearly half the House and Senate members initially found themselves paired with another incumbent. Some of those pairings resolved themselves when one incumbent moved to an adjacent district. Others involved members of the House running for Senate, either to avoid an incumbent pairing or because the newly created Senate Districts appear more favorable than their new House Districts. In some cases, a paired incumbent elected not to run at all.
Some people may not be bothered by the massive loss of experience and institutional knowledge this round of redistricting has wrought. I can understand those who might argue that turnover and fresh faces are a feature rather than a bug of redistricting reform.
However, we’re often told that the real goal of redistricting reform is to reduce the political polarization plaguing state houses caused by gerrymandering — the practice of drawing odd shaped and seemingly illogical districts crossing various city and county lines, dividing communities of interest in order to gain political advantage for the party in charge. If you banned the practice, we were promised, the districts would naturally be less partisan and politicians running in them would once again be incentivized to tailor a message to appeal to centrist voters.
Only that’s not what happened.
Even if you think the large amount of turnover is a good thing, the new faces will almost all be coming from even more politically polarized districts than the ones these experienced legislators are vacating.
By packing us all into nice, geometrically pretty districts, we’ve created 46 or 47 safely Democratic districts where you can win without a single Republican or independent vote, and about 42 or 43 on the Republican side. This leaves maybe 10 -12 competitive seats up for grabs in November.
Senator Howell said in an interview with the Richmond Times Dispatch that she “does not look back on her 32-year legislative career with many regrets, but one of them was her vote on the 2021 redistricting.” She goes on to say she “didn’t see the long-term implications” and that she “never bought the idea that incumbency doesn’t mean anything.”
One thing is clear. Those of us that return will have a much heavier load than usual to carry. In addition to having to work with the political neophyte who currently occupies the Governor’s mansion, we’ll have 30+ brand new Delegates with differing levels of experience and knowledge of the legislative process.
We will need our delegates and senators to not be afraid to be a bit partisan, to fight for our shared progressive values that got us the majority in 2019 and hopefully again later this year. That’s what won those elections and enabled us to pass legislation that made the Commonwealth more inclusive, our communities safer, voting more accessible, and criminal justice more attainable. We best represent our districts when we speak out against injustices and lift up policies that truly make a difference in our constituents’ lives.