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Opinion/Commentary: A champion of democracy: Middleditch worked to end gerrymandering

Opinion/Commentary: A champion of democracy: Middleditch worked to end gerrymandering

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On Nov. 3, 2020, nearly two-thirds of Virginia’s voters approved a major change in the way the state redraws legislative and congressional districts, slaying the gerrymander in favor of a bipartisan commission to handle redistricting.

Eight years ago, such a political reform was considered hardly possible in Virginia. Conventional wisdom insisted that no majority party in the General Assembly would give up the power to draw its own district lines for its members’ own partisan advantage.

But Leigh B. Middleditch Jr., a respected Charlottesville lawyer, saw the chance to build a movement that could convince legislators to allow citizens to participate in a bipartisan redistricting process in public instead of letting lawmakers draw districts behind closed doors.

His foresight and persistence for a state constitutional amendment enabling this change — even friends call him a stubbornly committed advocate — prove that one individual can provide the leadership to make a big difference at a statewide level.

“We got some 150,000 supporters, and that’s what swung the vote,” Middleditch said of last fall’s vote to enact the amendment, which takes the redistricting process away from the legislature’s majority party and gives it to an evenly divided bipartisan commission.

From an initial core group of about 140 people he began recruiting in 2013, “we kept adding people on a monthly basis, and that was very encouraging,” he said. That group was OneVirginia2021 — the “2021” referring to the intended time for the next redistricting, as initiated after each census count.

By the time the General Assembly voted final approval a year ago to put the redistricting amendment on the fall ballot, control of both legislative chambers had just switched from Republican to Democratic majorities. Enough Democrats stuck with their previous support of the amendment, along with enough Republicans — who had just slipped into minority party status — to pass the measure allowing voters to decide the amendment’s fate.

That perilous approval battle in the General Assembly last March never would have produced the constitutional reform without the dogged determination and coalition-building prowess Middleditch brought to bear.

Killing a state’s partisan gerrymander was hardly the first lengthy effort he had made to bring change to a difficult social or political situation.

More than 12 years ago, Middleditch helped right racial wrongs through an education program designed to help disadvantaged Black lawyers in Zimbabwe and South Africa through his leadership in the American Bar Association.

More than 24 years ago, he and Charlottesville businessman Michael Bills saw a need to provide new political leadership training across Virginia and co-founded the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, which seeks to restore trust, civility and respect in politics.

More than 36 years ago, Middleditch sought to heal the annexation scars inflicted in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. He led a civic push for the Citizens Committee for City-County Cooperation to campaign for an innovative way to prevent further annexations. The “Five C’s” group went on to facilitate consolidation of local fire and rescue services.

In the 1990s, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder appointed Middleditch to serve on the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. The foundations running Monticello and Montpelier also acquired his services as board members.

Always ready to deflect praise and point to contributions of others, he has a ready answer when asked what stimulated a 60-year career of civic activism.

“I came along when lawyers could not advertise,” he said. “My law firm encouraged me to get involved in civic activities.”

His lieutenants in the long, uphill fight to replace gerrymandering in Virginia don’t credit the McGuireWoods law firm where Middleditch worked until retiring in his 90s for his tireless leadership, but praise his gracious tenacity.

“He has an instinct for picking issues that can bridge partisan divides and earn broad public support. And he has patience and perseverance,” said Michael Rodemeyer, who chairs OneVirginia2021’s Blue Ridge Action Group. “Leigh has a long career of building relationships based on respect, trust, and an understanding of what can bring someone to the negotiating table.”

A former congressional staffer and scientist, Rodemeyer said foresight and careful planning allowed years of building support to pay off.

“Leigh knew when he started OneVirginia2021 that the odds were long. But he also knew that, if a window for change opened, having a plan and an organization for change in place and ready to go would drive the outcome,” Rodemeyer said. That window opened when the GOP saw its majority control slipping away suddenly and dozens of legislative Democrats continued to push for ending gerrymandering.

Brian Cannon, the statewide group’s executive director, said the group’s founder displayed a “wonderful mix of idealism, pragmatism, and stubbornness — which is just the recipe called for to push a long-term project like changing Virginia’s constitution to improve redistricting for all Virginians.”

Problems with the 2020 U.S. Census will delay the real work of the newly sworn-in bipartisan commission, which consists of eight citizen members and eight appointed legislators. Sept. 30 is now the earliest date that new population data is expected in Virginia, so the Nov. 2 elections for all 100 House of Delegates districts are almost certain to be held in current districts instead of new ones drawn by the commission.

The Census delay will give Virginians more time to provide input to the commission as it prepares to redraw district lines for 11 congressional districts and 140 state legislative seats next year. Middleditch met last week with anti-gerrymandering activists to find groups and resources to help the new commission draw fairer and more competitive districts.

“Leigh is a war horse in bringing people together for a task,” said Meg Heubeck, director of instruction at UVa’s Center for Politics and a volunteer who has worked with him for years to eliminate the self-dealing excesses of gerrymandering that limit competitive elections.

Heubeck credits Middleditch with a quietly brilliant talent to organize and motivate an army of “fair vote” volunteers. “After putting us together in a room, he set about inspiring us with a message of what Virginia could be; a vibrant state with higher rates of voter participation, higher rates of competitive state and federal races, and a more effective legislative environment,” she said.

The constitutional amendment creating the commission was a compromise, she said, “and that’s to be expected. In the end we got a redistricting commission consisting of citizens and legislators with oversight by the Virginia Supreme Court. I think it is a good place to be, and a big step forward from where we were.

“Leigh is humble and has immense will,” she added. “He is quiet unless he has something to say. He lets those he has chosen for positions speak.

“He is a facilitator, not a dictator,” Heubeck said. It’s a leadership style that has worked well over many years.

Bob Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the center.

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