House Democratic leaders announced Wednesday that they would not take up a constitutional amendment on redistricting before their Thursday deadline, punting on an issue that has divided Democrats up to the highest ranks.
The divisions became clearer on Wednesday, when a spokesman for House Speaker Eileen-Filler Corn, D-Fairfax, said she supports an alternative to the amendment and is lobbying senators to support it.
The decision could tee up a clash between Filler-Corn and Senate supporters of the amendment, who secured overwhelming support for the measure when it cleared that chamber last week.
Democrats face intense pressure to work through the political schism, given that for years, candidates up and down the ballot have run on promises to end partisan and racial gerrymandering in Virginia. That includes Gov. Ralph Northam, who has vowed to reject any map of new legislative or congressional districts that is not drawn by an independent commission.
The proposed constitutional amendment would shift power over the drawing of districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens. In the event of an impasse, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final say.
Most members of the black caucus in the House reject that approach, arguing that it doesn’t guarantee that people of color will have proportional membership on the commission that would draw the maps. They, along with Filler-Corn, are backing a bill that would guarantee that representation without amending the constitution.
Lawmakers in the House have until Thursday to act on their version of the amendment, a resolution introduced by Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. The resolution, which would need 51 votes to pass the House, has the support of all 45 Republicans and a swath of Democrats.
By failing to schedule it for a vote, the speaker’s office will essentially kill the House version of the resolution. The House has until the last day of the legislative session, March 7, to act on the Senate version.
The proposed constitutional amendment passed the legislature last year with bipartisan support. In order to become part of the constitution it would need to pass the legislature again this year with no changes in the language and then win approval in a statewide referendum in November.
Filler-Corn communicated the decision through Del. Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, whose members widely favor of the alternative Filler-Corn backs, a bill introduced by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News.
Price’s bill, House Bill 1256, calls for a similar redistricting process as the amendment, but would not amend the constitution to permanently remove map-drawing powers from the legislature.
Price’s bill, Bagby said Wednesday, offers “necessary” protection for communities of color.
“Amending the Constitution of Virginia requires a rigorous process over multiple legislative sessions and demands the utmost prudence and responsibility,” Bagby said. “We will not rush this process.”
Republicans and pro-amendment groups decried the move on Wednesday.
Brian Cannon, the leader of the anti-gerrymandering group One Virginia 2021, said the organization is “disappointed” that Filler-Corn used a “pocket veto” to deny the resolution a vote, which has enough support to pass in the House.
“This amendment is important and many of her members ran on it. It deserves a vote on the floor and she has the power to do so,” Cannon said.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County said in a statement: “We made a promise to the people of Virginia. Democrats ran on that promise, and they won on that promise. They should keep their promise.”
A Senate panel is expected to take up Price’s bill next Tuesday, and its fate is unclear. The panel put off consideration of the bill this past Tuesday, though at least two Democrats, Sens. Scott Surovell of Fairfax County and Creigh Deeds of Bath County, indicated they would support it.
In the full Senate, where Democrats have a 21-19 edge, the bill faces more precarious odds. Republicans widely support the amendment, which also has the strong backing of Democratic Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, Mamie Locke of Hampton, George Barker of Fairfax and Jennifer McClellan of Richmond.
Members of the black caucus in the Senate are among the staunchest supporters of the amendment.
If Price’s bill fails in the Senate, VanValkenburg and Cannon said that would leave the amendment as the only viable option to reforming who draws the state’s political maps.
VanValkenburg said Wednesday that as long as there are two avenues open, House leaders will avoid a floor showdown on the issue.
“I would have liked them to vote on my resolution,” he said on the House floor, as speculation about Filler-Corn’s decision swirled. “What’s more important is it passing at the end, and everyone being as comfortable as they can be about amending the constitution.”
Cannon said that with only one option, House leaders would essentially be backed into a corner.
“The Senate has been pretty firm in their position about passing the amendment. It seems like it’s possible that there will be one option left real soon,” Cannon said.
“If it’s the amendment or nothing, I can’t imagine Democrats going back on their promise on redistricting reform.”