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Virginia Redistricting Commission stymied by ‘a fundamental lack of trust’

Person speaking into mic
Crixell Matthews
Mackenzie Babichenko, co-chair of the Virginia Redistricting Commission, speaks at a recent meeting. (Photo: Crixell Matthew/VPM News)

Virginia’s first-ever redistricting commission missed its Sunday night deadline to draw state legislative maps. And the path forward seemed as murky as ever during a virtual meeting Monday as partisan tensions continued to flair.

Mackenzie Babichenko, the Republican co-chair of the body, acknowledged the difficult road ahead.

“I did talk to some people over the weekend on both sides,” Babichenko said. “And I would just say that it seemed as though there was just a fundamental lack of trust of each other's motives.”

The bipartisan group is still at odds over fundamental questions, including what makes a map politically fair and how race should be used in drawing maps. And they’re running out of time

The commission — half citizens, half lawmakers — has an extra 14 days to break the deadlock over General Assembly districts, though on Thursday they’ll decide whether to pass that duty off to the Supreme Court of Virginia. They’ll also discuss how to move forward with separate Congressional maps, including whether to continue using two, partisan map-drawers.

The commission’s often tense debates became more personal after three Democratic citizen appointees walked out of a meeting on Friday over what they said was a lack of compromise from Republicans. GOP members said their actions were premature.

All three Democrats — Greta Harris, James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins  —  were back Monday.

The presence of Harris, a Democratic co-chair of the group, led Del. Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania) to call for “some sort of legal discussion” over whether her comments Friday meant she had resigned.

Harris and several other Democrats took issue with that question, noting that Harris had repeatedly told media and commission staff that she was still on the commission. The discussion quickly exploded into an emotional, hour-long back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said he’d cycled through “different stages of grief” over the weekend -- first shock, then anger -- while Abrenio described his walkout as a decision he felt he could defend to his as-yet unborn daughter.

Babichenko urged her colleagues to call each other to help ease the bad blood. She said she had some hope the congressional maps would be less fraught because they don’t involve sitting commissioners. In the same breath, she offered advice to improve future iterations of the commission.

“I think you need to either take politics out or put it in in a way that makes more sense,” Babichenko said. “But it did not work this way.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.