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Stretch to fit

SoVaNow.com / February 17, 2021
Two weeks ago on our front page, The Sun dove into the topic of head counts for legislative districts in Southside Virginia, and the news isn’t great: Mecklenburg County lies smack dab in Senate and House districts that must be dramatically reapportioned to meet the population standard for how many people reside in General Assembly districts. The news on the congressional side is much the same: The 5th District of Virginia needs about 41,000 more people to come up to the average for congressional districts in the U.S. With the results of the 2020 Census pending, big changes in the political map are in the offing.

Most people will probably remember the 1990s when Mecklenburg was folded into the 18th State Senate District, represented at the time by state Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth (who now is one of Virginia’s longest-serving state senators). The 18th was redrawn by Assembly Democrats to take in a swath of Virginia’s southern tier from Tidewater to Halifax, effectively forcing the retirement of longtime Halifax state Sen. Howard Anderson, whose arch-conservatism was increasingly out of step with the modern-day Democratic Party. (Anderson was a Byrd Democrat.) It was a classic case of using the powers of reappointment to achieve political ends, and if the old 18th Senate District wasn’t strictly a gerrymander (the tale of population loss in Southside is sadly not new), it was pretty darn close.

Today, Southside Virginia is stuck in another gerrymander — the bastardized 5th Congressional District, which runs south-north all the way from the North Carolina state line to the border of Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. Lord only knows what the 5th will look like next year once the 2020 reapportionment is presumably complete With a population that’s estimated to be 40,995 shy of the ideal number of residents (768,588 for every congressional district in the U.S.), it would require a fairly major redraw of the map to bring the 5th up to snuff. But redistricting does not happen in a vacuum; as deficient as the 5th is, it’s still not as bad as the 9th Congressional District of Southwest Virginia, which has a 66,550-person shortfall. Land-locked by its borders with North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, the 9th must expand north and east, cutting into territory that now lies in the 5th. By the time all is and said and done, it would be no surprise if the reconfigured 5th District pushed all the way out to the Richmond suburbs (or into the city itself).

Why should anyone care about this stuff other than hopeless political junkies? Certainly on a surface level, there’s not much to say about this state of affairs other than “what will be, will be.” This is especially true now that Virginia voters have taken the power of redistricting out of the hands of the politicians and assigned it to a bipartisan commission — the outcome achieved with overwhelming passage of Virginia’s constitutional amendment establishing the commission in November. For a variety of reasons, it would be wrong to say that politics has been eliminated from the process, but the constitutional amendment should strip away much of the crassness. We’ll reserve judgment on Virginia’s future political maps once they’ve been published, but as for the improvement in how they’ll be drawn — that much is evident already.

In Mecklenburg, Tommy Wright and Frank Ruff can expect to gain a lot of new constituents if they chose to run for office beyond 2021. Ruff’s 15th Senate District (the successor to the old 18th) is the most population-deficient Senate district in Virginia, according to estimates by the Virginia Public Access Project (vpap.org). The 15th, which includes all of Mecklenburg, Charlotte and Lunenburg and parts of Brunswick, Halifax and Pittsylvania counties and the City of Danville, is 25,678 people short of the population average for Virginia Senate districts. As is the case at the congressional level, districts that suffer the greatest imbalances in population skew heavily to Virginia’s south and west, meaning it’s inevitable that the redrawn districts must slide over east and north in the upcoming reappointment. Wright’s 61st House district is 8,829 people short of the mark, placing it fifth from the bottom in Virginia in terms of being out of sync with the ideal population. The only districts that need even more new residents are three in Southwest Virginia and one in Southside, the Pittsylvania-Henry-Martinsville area HD-16. (The delegate there is Les Adams, a Chatham Republican.) Not far behind Wright in needing to come up with more constituents in future years is Halifax Del. James Edmunds, who represents Halifax, Charlotte, Prince Edward and part of Campbell County in the 60th District. Edmunds, too, is a Republican.

Edmunds, in a recent interview, predicted that someone in the Southside Virginia legislative delegation is going to face the elimination of their district in 2021. “Southside is going to lose a seat. Southwest is going to lose a seat. All the population growth is in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads,” Edmunds said. More than likely, two Republican members of the House of Delegates will be thrown together in a district, and for those who avoid this arduous fate, they can nevertheless count on representing areas that are unfamiliar now and may prove to be inhospitable political turf in the future. How well will the Tommy Wright road show play in Chesterfield County? We may be about to find out.

(Before proceeding further, two notes: When we asked Wright about this, his reply was that he would continue to stand for election in the district as it now exists, and second, there’s a strong chance Virginia will hold statewide legislative elections in three consecutive years — 2021, 2022 and 2023. The House of Delegates comes up for a vote every two years; Virginia is set to hold its customary off-year gubernatorial and legislative elections this November, and state Senate seats come up for a vote every four years, which means Ruff is up again in 2023 after winning re-election in 2019. Why, then, would Virginia hold legislative elections in 2022? Because the redistricting commission is unlikely to produce a statewide reapportionment map in time for the 2021 election cycle, which starts in June with party primaries. Assuming a final map is approved after that time, special elections will likely follow in 2022 in the newly drawn districts. It’s a fair process, but it’s also a full employment act for campaign consultants and workers.)

The upshot of this 10-year redistricting reshuffle should be familiar by now: a creeping loss of influence for the region at Virginia’s Capitol. In many instances, this hardly matters — on issues big and small, senators and delegates in other parts of Virginia have shown themselves to be more sympathetic to the needs of Southside Virginia residents than the area’s own representatives are. (One only look at Virginia’s recent expansion of Medicaid, and the disgraceful opposition by Wright and Ruff to this life-saving initiative, for an example.)

But in other, more specific ways, the diminishing voice of Southside and Southwest in the halls of power in Richmond will sting. You see the problem worsening each year on certain issues — hunting laws is a good example — and one can only guess at the what-ifs that will never be because of Southside’s waning representation. Is there a pathway to equalize the funding that supports rural, suburban and urban school districts in Virginia? What about rural broadband? Are dirt roads in the country destined to be stuck in the mud? Most importantly, is there a way to attack the underlying problem — the steady population drain in Southside and Southwest — in concert with politicians in Northern Virginia and Tidewater who understandably are looking after their hometown interests above all else?

The quick answer is “maybe.” But it’s a big subject, too much for a single serving. To be continued next week ....



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