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Harrell named to redistricting panel / January 11, 2021

Virginia’s new redistricting commission includes a member from South Boston, retired business leader Richard (Rick) Harrell.

A five-judge panel appointed Harrell to the commission this week, making him one of only eight citizens in Virginia to be seated on the 16-member panel. The other eight members are delegates and senators in the Virginia General Assembly.

“I hope I can contribute to the solution that people voted for, to try to have less politically motivated [election] boundaries that would be rational,” said Harrell.

Formation of the redistricting commission follows on the heels of lopsided passage in November of a constitutional amendment to take Virginia’s reappointment process out of the hands of the legislature. The commission will redraw Virginia’s political boundaries based on the population count of the 2020 Census.

Harrell was among some 1,200 Virginia citizens who applied to serve on the commission. He was recommended for the job by one of the four legislative leaders on the panel, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment of James City County.

Harrell, who joins Chatham Del. Les Adams as Southside Virginia’s only representatives, said he does not know Norment personally and has met him only once, in passing at a state economic development gathering. “It wasn’t a very noteworthy meeting,” he said.

In naming the citizen members of the commission, Harrell said the judge panel sought to eliminate candidates who “are so politically intoxicated, their sole reasons for volunteering for this activity was to enhance the position of one party or the other.” The process of applying for the commission was fairly simple — Harrell submitted an application, with a brief written portion, and answered two questions, one on his educational background and the other on his political involvements.

“The goal was to reflect all the various diverse constituents [in Virginia], if you can call it that. Male, female, all different races, different ages — with eight people, you really can’t do that,” he added.

One member of the commission is Hispanic, one listed himself as Asian, another said he was “multi race,” two members are Black and three are White.

“The group is diverse,” said Harrell, “but you can’t weight it exactly as it is in the state.”

He conceded that the commission has run into criticism for being “too old, too white and too male,” and added with a chuckle, “and I happen to be in all those categories, I guess.”

Harrell pledged, however, to approach the process with an open mind, with a goal to achieve fairness. To that end, he said he won’t simply be out to look to look after the region’s political interests. “I’m not there to represent Southside Virginia in my assessment. My purpose is to try to help the process.

“I don’t have enough hubris in me to assume I can do but so much, but I’ll try to contribute,” he said.

The commission will be asked to redraw election districts for General Assembly races and for Congressional elections. Harrell pointed to the 5th Congressional District — the largest by land mass in a state, running from the North Carolina border to the edge of Loudoun County near Washington, D.C. — as representative of the difficult challenge of drawing fair districts with a minimal amount of political engineering.

“I’m very interested in rural Virginia — it’s 60 percent of the geographic area of the state that has a much smaller percentage of the population. How are we to integrate [regional interests] to the benefit of the state? It’s always hard to do.”

Approval of any election map that the commission comes up will require a supermajority of members on the panel, and in case of a deadlock, the decision on how to draw districts will be handed off to the Virginia Supreme Court for resolution.

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