Remap Session Will See Rural Political Power Ebb in Virginia

By BOB LEWIS
|  Sunday, Apr 3, 2011  |  Updated 6:42 PM EDT
View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print
Rural Political Power to Ebb in Va.

AP

Growth in the suburbs means fewer seats for rural Virginia.

advertisement

Explosive growth in Virginia's outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., is about to push the balance of political power in the General Assembly from rural interests that once dominated Richmond to urban and suburban ones.

It's simple math and about the only thing Republicans and Democrats, senators and delegates, nonpartisan reformers and others agree upon as the General Assembly's heavily politicized reapportionment fight opens Monday.

"Southside, southwestern Virginia, the Valley, they're all going to lose seats, and that's the bottom line," said University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato. "After this, the rural legislators are the outsiders looking in."

The numbers from the 2010 census tell the story.

The population of Loudoun County, the nation's fifth fastest-growing county, grew by 84 percent during the first decade of the 21st century, from almost 170,000 people in 2000 to more than 312,000 last year. The increase moved the county from Virginia's sixth-largest in 2000 to fourth in 2010.

Over the past decade, Prince William County grew by 43 percent, Stafford and James City counties grew by nearly 40 percent each, Spotsylvania increased by 35 percent and Frederick increased by about 32 percent.

All of that is far ahead of the statewide population increase of 13 percent, from nearly 7 million in 2000 to about 8 million in 2010.

Pittsylvania County, the state's 15th largest county in 2000, grew by 3 percent, but because others grew so much faster, its population ranking dropped to No. 20.

"We're not only seeing the population shift, we're going to see political power shift," said the Rev. Doug Smith, a member of an independent advisory panel Gov. Bob McDonnell created to recommend impartial redistricting lines.

And the results, at least for a time, could create cultural and geographic fault lines in the General Assembly on interests that divide rural farming and mining areas and leafy, affluent planned communities of suburbia, Smith said.

"Regional caucuses may start binding together on regional issues and put them ahead of party interests," said Smith, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. "It won't be politics and parties so much as it will be country mouse and city mouse."

The conflict could play out in how state money for government services such as highways and public schools is allocated in future years.

"The only weapon the rural districts have in maintaining their influence is seniority," Sabato said. "So they've just got to keep electing the same people again and again."

State legislatures and Congress both venerate tenure and often reward it with key leadership posts or committee assignments.

David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Roanoke political tactician whose specialty is helping candidates connect with rural voters, said country caucuses will have to work together and become smarter to advance their interests.

"We'll just have to buckle our chin straps and fight a little harder," said Saunders, who helped wealthy Alexandria suburbanite Mark R. Warner find his inner Bubba and win the governor's race 10 years ago.

 But there are times when the interests of small-town Virginia and urbanized Virginia won't be that different, Saunders said.

"Rural is a state of mind," he said. "There's probably more rednecks on Route 1 in Alexandria right now than there are in the entire 9th (Congressional) District."

While demographics dictates a proportional decrease in downstate House and Senate seats, bare-knuckle politics usually dictates which officeholders find themselves in either new districts or paired with another incumbent.

The 10th District along the North Carolina border -- which has been held by House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong for the past 20 years -- would be changed by legislation being advanced by the House's Republican majority.

If the plan is adopted, Armstrong would be sharing a new 16th District with Republican Don Merricks of Pittsylvania.

To remain in the 10th, Armstrong and family would have to move from their Martinsville-area home to Loudoun, Frederick or Clarke counties, near the Maryland border.

The House GOP plan would also force four Democratic incumbents into a game of musical chairs for two seats.

Delegates Clarence "Bud' Phillips, 2nd District, and Joe Johnson, 4th, are paired in the same southwestern Virginia district, while delegates Paula Miller, 87th, and Lynwood Lewis, 100th, are in the same Hampton Roads district.

Also, freshman Delegate Robin Abbott of Newport News would be in a conservative district with veteran GOP Delegate Glen Oder.

Majority Senate Democrats did the same thing to Senate Republicans.

Senators Frank Wagner and Jeff McWaters of Virginia Beach would be in the same district, as would Roanoke's Sen. Ralph Smith and Lynchburg's Steve Newman.

The majority of legislators, however, are safe under the majority party proposals. But sometimes only because the new boundaries zigzag across communities and neighborhoods and, in Hampton Roads, leap across miles of water to localities that have little in common with other.

"A lot of that sort of thing happens when gerrymandering is done behind doors that are closed," said Smith of the majority-party bills that will be debated this week.

Lawmakers are under pressure to enact new legislative districts to allow for August primaries and November general elections for all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 Senate seats. Lawmakers have more time to redraw Virginia's 11 congressional district boundaries because House races aren't until the fall of 2012.

Get the latest headlines sent to your inbox!
View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print
Leave Comments
Join the Ride to Conquer Cancer
Join the Ride To Conquer Cancer, Sept. 13 Read more
Follow Us
Sign up to receive news and updates that matter to you.
Send Us Your Story Tips
Check Out