People, not parties: the push for redistricting reform
In the General Assembly session of 1982, Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D- Reston, presented a novel initiative — the first redistricting reform plan involving the creation of an independent commission to draw political boundaries. Brian Cannon, 34, was but a twinkle in his parents’ eyes at the time, but he’s heard the stories.
“ The Democrats laughed at him,” Mr. Cannon told us Wednesday. And Mr. Plum was one of their own. But so headywine with power were those Democrats that they figured their legislative dominance would be everlasting — and so, too, their control of the redistricting process that would keep them atop the political heap. But, in 1999, they would lose the House and, in 2015, the Senate as well.
All glory, as they say, is fleeting — and political power, likewise. But there are constants in this world — gerrymandering, or the drawing of district lines to maintain and enhance political sway, for one. And, for another, Ken Plum, who still represents the 36th House District in Richmond, and is still calling for an independent commission.
Only now, Mr. Plum and his kind have an ally — Mr. Cannon and the organization he serves as executive director: OneVirginia2021, dedicated to making that “plum” of an initiative a reality.
Thir ty- four years have passed since Mr. Plum first sounded that clarion, but his has hardly proved a lonely or distant voice. In fact, redistricting reform has become one of those hardy perennials, oftposited but never enacted. One reason: a diffidence in approach born, paradoxically enough, out of self- assurance emanating from a just cause.
“ We had thought being right was enough,” explains Mr. Cannon, who enlisted as a volunteer foot soldier in the cause. “Silly us.”
To be sure, such reticent certainty — again, notice the oxymoron — was insufficient to overcome the marrow-deep self-interest that prevails in the General Assembly. Sure, the reformers were right, but what political party, when in power, would gladly yield to the possibility of losing it . . . merely out of devotion to principle? Such is simply not in the standard political DNA Until now, perhaps.
So what’s changed? Virginia politics, for one thing, says Mr. Cannon — what with the waxing (and now perhaps waning) of the Tea Party and the brutal realities of a polarization so pervasive that it’s prompted even the most partisan politicos to realize the common weal, orcommonwealth, is no longer being served.
And then, too, there’s the organization, started in February 2014, that named Mr. Cannon its executive director in January of last year.
When inter viewing Mr. Cannon for the post, the reform group’s leading lights — folks like former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, heavyweight attorney Leigh Middleditch, and former Del. Shannon Valentine — let it be known this initiative would be something more than “the good ol’ college try.” Or, as Mr. Cannon adds, “businesses and good- government groups doing the right thing.”
This push would be serious, if for no other reason than this: Virginia has come to rival Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas in the egregiousness of its gerrymandering practices. Virginia, with its riparian geography, Mr. Cannon says, has always been “ fertile ground” for the practice named for Early Republic politico Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, but of late it’s sprouted like kudzu.
As OneVirginia2021 notes in its advocacy literature, “ 46 localities are ( currently) split in the Senate districts and 59 localities are split in the House of Delegates maps.” The result: Parties, rather than people, are being served.
That the organization is gaining impetus in its drive for reform can be witnessed in certain key numbers: Its cadre of active supporters has increased seven-fold (from 3,500 to 25,000) while its critical donor base has expanded from 100 contributors to 1,000.
Such growth, Mr. Cannon implies, has not detracted from the simplicity of its mission: a three- pronged reform campaign ( litigation, legislation, education) grounded in the “basics” — namely adherence to the provision in the state Constitution, now largely ignored, calling for compact and contiguous legislative districts, on the congressional as well as on the state level.
On Friday, we’ll examine in more detail this all- in, “ all of the above” approach.