Virginia Lawmakers Address Redistricting, VMI Investigation As Special Session Wraps Virginia lawmakers approved guidelines for a new bipartisan redistricting commission and set aside funding for an investigation into systemic racism at the Virginia Military Institute.
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Virginia Lawmakers Address Redistricting, VMI Investigation As Special Session Wraps

The Virginia House of Delegates met once in person — albeit at a distance — before meeting remotely for weeks in a special session focused on budget and policing. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

On Monday, Virginia lawmakers at last wrapped up a lengthy special session, approving guidelines for a new bipartisan redistricting commission and setting aside funds for an investigation into systemic racism at the Virginia Military Institute.

Clocking in at 12 weeks, the session was longer than Virginia's standard 60-day session in even years. It began in August to give lawmakers time to rework the state's two-year budget in light of the coronavirus pandemic and to consider legislation around policing and criminal justice.

In their final acts of the session, House and Senate lawmakers responded to a series of budget amendments from Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

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They easily approved language that outlines how a new bipartisan redistricting commission will operate. This comes after last week's general election where voters approved a constitutional amendment that creates the commission.

The 16-member body — half legislators, half citizens — will redraw Virginia's legislative districts every 10 years. Previously, only legislators did this.

Enabling language for the commission lays out more detail on how the commission will choose its members and do its work. It states that House of Delegates and Senate leaders who select the commission's eight legislator members cannot choose themselves. It prohibits people who have held elected office, worked as campaign employees or as lobbyists from serving as citizen members. And it says there should be a focus on racial, gender and geographic diversity in selecting the legislator and citizen members.

Lawmakers had been waiting to see if voters would approve the constitutional amendment before writing this language into the budget.

Some House Democrats had been hopeful that voters would not.

When they were in the minority, Democrats largely supported creating the bipartisan commission. But a number of House Democrats changed their position after the party took control of the General Assembly, arguing they wanted to take a stronger approach to ending gerrymandering.

They dislike, for example, that the commission still includes legislators and that if the group deadlocks, the Virginia Supreme Court takes over.

"For those of us who genuinely, sincerely believe that legislators should not be picking their constituents, this is a very bitter pill to swallow," Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) said, "because this allows eight legislators to do it, according to the constitutional amendment that we also have to recognize the voters approved."

She and other House Democrats said they would support the enabling language as a way to address some of their issues with the redistricting commission.

"This recommendation in front of us right now is the only game in town," for the time being, Roem said, before the House voted 99-0 its favor.

Several Democrats also said they would put forward additional legislation next year to make the commission's work more transparent.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) said commission members should have to disclose political contributions they've made. He also said there should be more public hearings during the redistricting process — not only before, but also after the commission has put forward its maps.

On Monday, lawmakers also approved $1 million in funding for a third-party investigation into the Virginia Military Institute, which has been rocked by allegations of pervasive racism on campus. VMI's superintendent, Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned after news reports where Black cadets and alumni said they experienced racism from peers and faculty.

The spending proposal met some pushback from Republican lawmakers. Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), said the alleged incidents at VMI should be "fully investigated," but he described Peay as a man of "tremendous integrity."

In his resignation letter, Peay said the governor's office had urged him to step down, which Cox criticized, saying "because of how that was handled, I just don't have a lot of confidence in ... an independent investigation from this administration."

In the Senate, Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) said he supported the investigation. But Norment, who is white, also criticized officials for rushing to judgement on VMI, saying, "We can't let the media lynch VMI," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The senator referenced sexual assault allegations leveled against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) last year, saying that Fairfax did not get due process. Fairfax, who is Black, had talked about a "political lynching," at the time.

In the Washington Post report on VMI, a Black student said he was threatened with a lynching.

Virginia's special session unfolded under unusual circumstances. The state Senate met in a large room at the Science Museum of Virginia, and the House of Delegates primarily met virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers were forced to remake an ambitious budget because of revenue shortfalls. They also passed a number of bills around policing and criminal justice, including changes to Virginia's sentencing laws, bans on no-knock warrants and limits on the use of chokeholds.

Other proposals, like an end to qualified immunity, failed to make it out of committee.

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