Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The coming November ballot referendum on state redistricting reform has exposed tensions among Arlington’s majority Democrats.

Activists who’ve long agreed on the need to end gerrymandering find themselves at odds over whether to take the bird in hand of a proposed new citizen-led commission to draw electoral boundaries — or hold out for something better from the current Democratic majority in Richmond.

It’s a messy, multi-pronged issue packed with contingencies that many officials hesitate to discuss.

The proposed constitutional amendment would curb legislators’ past authority to draw their own electoral maps by creating a 16-member commission. To select its members, judges would draw names from legislature-supplied lists for four state senators (two per party), four state representatives (two per party) and eight citizens, one of whom would chair the public meetings. Final maps would need approval from six of eight legislators and six of eight citizens. If the commission fails to meet deadlines for drawing new districts, the task would fall to the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court. That’s what worries some Dems.

The proposed constitutional amendment was backed last year by most Virginia Democrats and Republicans (who still back it strongly), including marquee names: Gov. Ralph Northam, U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Rep. Don Beyer, state Sens. Janet Howell, Adam Ebbin, and Barbara Favola. Throw in advocacy groups: One Virginia2021, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

But after Democrats took over the legislature, calculations changed. Some in the black caucus and delegates like Mark Levine smelled a rat. Republicans seemed too eager, raising fears they would stack the commission. “I fear any `democracy’ in which control of the legislature is chosen by judges who were chosen by a legislature that was chosen by the judges chosen by the legislature in a never-ending loop that permanently circumvents voters,” Levine said. “I’m now convinced the proposed amendment is worse than imperfect: It could lock in partisan gerrymandering forever.”

Del. Patrick Hope also opts for seeking a better deal.

I listened to Arlington Democrats at their Aug. 5 meeting (Zoom) debate twin questions — whether to take a sample ballot position to guide voters, and whether to oppose passage of the referendum. “We CAN and WILL do better!” many Dems argued, mentioning newly enacted criteria defining fair boundaries. Much support for the amendment from establishment figures is out of date, argued longtime organizer Mary Detweiler. “Fear of controversy” is not a good reason for the local party to avoid taking a position — even if some volunteers who hand out sample ballots disagree, she said. “We owe it to voters to produce guidance” and “carefully scrutinize what goes in the state Constitution.”

The majority at the general meeting agreed — 68.7 percent wanting the party to take a stand, 78 percent opposing the amendment.

But, warned precinct captain Chris DeRosa, “I don’t think it’s a good look for Democrats battling among themselves.”

Statewide, 70 percent of voters support the amendment, according to a Christopher Newport University poll in December. “What Democrats are arguing is the potentiality that the commission is not going to work,” Democrat Michael Raizen told me. “We should give it an opportunity to see its potential. If we don’t, we miss the 10-year Census, and it’s going to take at least two sessions of the legislature to get a new constitutional amendment.”

The current referendum, he added, “is going to pass.”

National Football League watch — Arlington edition: M.J. Stewart, the 2014 Yorktown High School graduate who became the first athlete from that school to make the pros, received disappointing news in early August: He was being dropped from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as one of their cornerbacks.

Good news is that the University of North Carolina star and 2018 second-round draft pick was quickly picked up this month — by the Cleveland Browns.