By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Democrats hoping to reclaim control of the Virginia General Assembly on Election Day 2019 may owe their success to a suit which led to the redrawing of 11 racially gerrymandered House Districts.
The suit, first filed in 2015 by a group of Black Democrats, said Republicans who controlled the redistricting process disproportionally packed African Americans into those districts.
This process caused surrounding districts to be more white and Republican, giving the GOP an edge and control of the legislature in a majority of House and Senate Districts.
All but one of the districts is represented by a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC).
Seven of those districts are located in Hampton Roads and are represented by Delegates Roselyn
Tyler (75th-Emporia); Cliff Hayes (77th); Matthew James (Portsmouth 80th); Jay Jones (Norfolk 89th); Joe Lindsey (Norfolk 90th); Jeion Ward (92nd Hampton); and Marcia Price (Newport News 95th).
Five of them are in the Richmond-Petersburg Metropolitan area: Delegates Lashrecse D. Aird (63rd); Betsy B. Carr (65th); Delores L. McQuinn (70th); Jeff M. Bourne (71st); and Lamont Bagby (VLBC Chair) (74th).
The case, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, previously made it to the U.S. Supreme Court which had remanded the case back to a lower court for further judgment after vacating part of the court’s previous ruling.
Marc Elias, who redrew the maps, argued that state lawmakers improperly diluted the power of African Americans in the state by drawing them into 12 majority-Black districts, including in the Richmond area. Eleven of the disputed districts are currently represented by Black lawmakers.
The suit was immediately challenged by the Republicans at every rung of the federal courts, before jurists ordered the legislative leaders to redraw them.
They refused and a special master was assigned the job of doing so. The result, many of the Republican-controlled districts adjacent to the minority-majority districts, were redrawn to include more Blacks and Democratic-leading whites.
The Democrats need only two seats in the House and one in the Senate to reclaim control of both houses of the legislature.
Many long-time Republican lawmakers, including the current Republican House Speaker Kirkland Cox, who has been representing the 66th District for 20 years, were affected. The sprawling district includes Colonial Heights and parts of Chesterfield, where he is a Civics teacher.
He is being challenged by a Black female—Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a native of Chesterfield County where she attended Monacan High School. She received her B.A. from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In Hampton Roads, two House races that political analysts are watching involve incumbents Chris Stolle of the 83rd District and Chris Jones in the 76th.
Stolle is being challenged by a white female, Nancy Guy, and Clinton Jenkins, an African American, is running to unseat Jones.
The redrawn districts injected more Black votes into the once solidly Republican districts held by Stolle and Jones. The two candidates are using language in their campaign ads that project them as longstanding supporters of Black political and social issues.
Stolle is running an ad attacking the disproportionate number of Black students disciplined in the Virginia Beach Public Schools, a policy challenged by the Obama Administration.
Chris Jones is touting the idea that he supported the expansion of Medicaid. It qualified poor and Black people who are working to use the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The Republicans did so because it was the signature legislation of President Obama, said State Senator Mamie Locke of Hampton. Both candidates are running ads throughout the region and Democratic leaders say they are deceptive.
Locke said the ads “are more than deceptive.”
She said that Jones notably, has not mentioned “he voted against Medicaid expansion for four years straight.”
Locke said Republicans stood against the Medicaid expansion, claiming it would cost too much, despite federal law which would have paid for more than 90 percent of the cost.
Locke said that Jones worked out a compromise to do so after the 2017 legislative elections which delivered a “shellacking” to the Republican Party. Democrats won 15 seats and came close to taking over the House and Senate.
Locke said that Jones, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, engineered a deal to impose a work requirement for people who apply for Medicaid, although many of those people already were employed.
Locke also pointed out that Stolle, Jones and others GOP stalwarts, running in the redrawn and now “competitive” districts are not even mentioning they are Republicans.
Instead they now are “independent.”
A recent Wason poll showed that Democrats were more passionate about the upcoming election. A political analyst says that a large turnout is needed to take advantage of the redrawn districts.
Analysts such as Dr. Quinton Kidd of Christopher Newport College said non-presidential election years inspire a smaller more conservative and GOP-leaning segment of voters.
So Democrats will need a huge turnout, especially among African Americans to overcome this trend on November 5.
Both parties have been fueling the campaign with money from out of state donors to fund a “get out the vote” effort, especially in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
Locke said the newly drawn districts will give Black and white voters “a choice” of candidates, as opposed to GOP incumbents who are unchallenged.
Next Week: The story of the 12 Black activists who filed the redistricting suit in 2015.