RICHMOND — The Virginia Redistricting Commission rejected an attempt Monday to at least try to hire nonpartisan lawyers, choosing instead to seek two sets of partisan attorneys to advise the new body as it redraws the state’s political districts later this year.
Opinion was split as the commission made the first major decision since its creation last winter, with Democratic-appointed citizen members overruled by most of the elected Democrats and all Republicans on the 16-person commission.
In a series of 10-4 votes, the commission decided against pursuing nonpartisan counsel, choosing to issue two requests for proposals meant to select one Democratic firm and one Republican firm. Greta Harris, a Democratic co-chair of the commission, would have been the fifth vote in favor of nonpartisan lawyers but she said she had to leave the meeting early to catch a flight.
Though the lawyers hired by the commission won’t be drawing district lines themselves, their advice could have a significant influence by shaping what the commission prioritizes and determining whether its decisions comply with all various laws meant to ensure a fair process. Citizen-led redistricting commissions in other states, including Arizona, also have chosen to hire two partisan firms as a way to avoid mistrust and infighting over the selection of a single firm.
Several citizen members argued that issuing a third, neutral, RFP, even if only to gauge interest from firms that could offer nonpartisan advice, would send a signal to Virginia voters that the commission was trying to depoliticize the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts.
“What the public has done here in creating this commission is an effort to do things differently,” said Democratic commission member James Abrenio, referring to the ballot referendum Virginians overwhelmingly approved last year to strip the General Assembly of its redistricting power and give it to a new, bipartisan commission made up of both citizens and sitting legislators.
In the past, political caucuses in the General Assembly used their own money to hire redistricting lawyers to guide them through the process. Some citizen members seemed uncomfortable using public funds to achieve something similar through the commission.
“It doesn’t cost us anything here to put out the nonpartisan option and to show the people of the commonwealth we believe that it’s possible that someone can do this work,” said Democratic member Sean Kumar, who said he volunteered to serve on the commission to represent the interests of citizens, not the interests of his party.
But a majority of the commission, including a particularly vocal pair of state senators, felt trying to find a nonpartisan law firm in a highly political field was akin to looking for a “unicorn.”
“I need to have the best advice of the best Republican and the best Democrat,” said Republican appointee Richard Harrell III. “Because they are likely, together, to give me the most informed opinion.”
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, who along with Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, led the way in arguing for partisan lawyers, said trying to hire nonpartisan lawyers could backfire if information were to emerge later revealing more of a partisan bent than was disclosed.
“If we did find someone who said that they’re the unicorn, the amount of work that would have to be done to find what they really are behind the scenes would be just enormous,” Newman said.
Barker and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, joined with the commission’s eight Republicans to vote for hiring partisan lawyers. Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, was the only legislative member who voted for keeping a nonpartisan option alive. Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was absent for the votes after telling the commission she had another event to attend Monday morning.
The commission is planning to issue its requests for legal counsel immediately, and hopes to select a Republican firm and a Democratic firm by July 12.
The new maps will be drawn this fall, after the state receives updated U.S. Census data.