Yesterday, Andy Schmookler and I appeared on WSVA to discuss the political issues of the day. Not surprisingly, we discussed the recent protests at the Capitol, impeachment, and Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency.
For much of the recent history of the Virginia General Assembly, the House of Delegates has been comprised of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. In fact, the longest-serving member of the body, Lacey Putney, was, for most of his time in office, an independent. The same doesn’t hold true for the Virginia Senate, however, as independents and third-party candidates have been unable to win any seats in the upper house. But, due to circumstances as a result of the 2020 elections, it is possible that we will see at least one independent in both the House and Senate of Virginia.
Before you ask, no, you haven’t missed a special election where independents won office. Instead, this outcome centers around another election, the 2020 Harrisonburg City Council elections. How could a city council race change the makeup of the General Assembly in Richmond? Let me explain. In that race, six candidates sought three seats on the council. Three ran as Democrats, one as a Republican, and one as an independent. Two members of the General Assembly, Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Tony Wilt, both Republicans from Rockingham County made donations to the independent candidate as opposed to his Republican challenger. According to VPAP (the Virginia Public Access Project), Obenshain made two donations to George Hirschmann, one in June and one in August totaling $586. His campaign chipped in another $250. Wilt also made two donations to Hirschmann, one in June and one in September totaling $500. In addition, Wilt’s business, Superior Concrete contributed $500.
Why does this matter? According to Article I, section 2, part A of the Republican Party of Virginia Party Plan,
“A voter who, subsequent to making a statement of intent, publicly supports a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.”
In addition, there is Article 7, Section C of the Party Plan.
A member of an Official Committee is held to a higher standard of support for nominees of the Republican Party than an individual who merely participates in a mass meeting, party canvass, convention or primary. Therefore, a member of an Official Committee is deemed to have resigned his Committee position if he (a) makes a reportable contribution to and/or (b) knowingly allows his name to be publicly used by and/or (c) makes a written or other public statement supporting the election of a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee in a Virginia General or Special Election, and/or (d) becomes a member or an officer of or makes a reportable contribution to any other political party. A majority of the elected officers of an official committee are charged with recognizing when this provision is in effect.
Although such statements seem fairly clear, when I learned of this matter prior to the November election, I spoke to the chairman of the RPV, Rich Anderson, to see if my understanding is correct, that if a Republican supports a candidate who is running against a Republican, he or she would be expelled from the party.
Here is the exchange.
Good morning, Mr. Anderson.
I think you may have misunderstood my message to you on Facebook. This fall, the city of Harrisonburg is holding elections for city council. As such, the Harrisonburg Republican committee has nominated Dr. Kathleen Kelly as their candidate. However, there is also an independent candidate running for re-election to the council. Quite a few local Republicans are openly supporting the independent and, according to VPAP, have donated to his campaign. My understanding of the RPV Party Plan is that such an action would expel this person from the Republican Party. As section A, paragraph 2 states “A voter who, subsequent to making a statement of intent, publicly supports a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.” Is that not the case?
As such, I am curious about what actions the RPV will take about this matter.
Thank you for your time.
Here is the chairman’s reply:
Thanks for emailing, and your interpretation of the RPV State Party Plan is correct.
This involves members of a local Republican committee, so I think that this is the purview of the local party. I’m copying our RPV General Counsel for his comments.
Many thanks, Joshua.
RICHARD L. ANDERSON
Chair, Republican Party of Virginia
Member, Virginia General Assembly (2010-2018)
Colonel, United States Air Force (1979-2009)
In addition, here is what the RPV General Counsel Chris Marston added:
Two provisions of the plan are implicated. For anyone who is currently a member of the Harrisonburg City Committee, they are subject to immediate removal if a majority of the elected officers of the committee find that they have supported a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee. That’s in Art. VII.
The provisions in Art. I relate to subsequent nominating events. If any of the folks supporting the independent participated in the nominating process that made Kathleen Kelly the nominee AND as part of that process were required to sign a statement of intent, those folks can be prohibited from participating in future Republican nominating events. There’s not a central list of folks subject to that prohibition maintained by RPV. It’s up to the unit committee when administering subsequent nominating processes to enforce that prohibition.
Hope that helps.
Given the information which is publicly available, this matter seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Senator Obenshain and Delegate Wilt, through their donations during the Summer of 2020, supported an independent candidate who was running against a Republican. As such, both are no longer members of the Republican Party and thus would be serving as independents in the General Assembly. Clearly, if any rank and file member of the party engaged in this behavior the party would be quick to remove them, right?
For example, this is an issue with which I have had personal experience. In early February of 2014, I received a phone call from the Harrisonburg Republican Party chairman who told me that I had been expelled from the party due to my support of a candidate who ran against a Republican in the 2013 election cycle. He stated that I was to have considered having resigned from my position. I would not have an opportunity to appeal this decision and if I attempted to attend a meeting of the Harrisonburg Republican Party I would be physically barred from doing so. Afterward, I called the Obenshains about this matter and was told “a good Republican” was someone “who supported all the Republican candidates.”
Unfortunately, however straightforward the rules might be, I’ve found during my decades in politics that they are often bent, skirted, or outright violated based upon the position, power, and connections of those involved. In this case, as both Delegate Wilt and Senator Obenshain are members of the Rockingham County Republican Party, you would assume the local unit would follow the RPV Party Plan and be quick to release them from the bonds of the party. However, it seems unlikely that the party will do anything about this matter. I know this because according to VPAP the Rockingham County Republican Party also donated to the independent candidate over the Republican. The local unit could not take action without revealing their own violation of the Plan and expelling both Wilt and Obenshain from their ranks without castigating themselves would be gross hypocrisy.
So, although if the rules were followed fairly and uniformly when the General Assembly starts tomorrow, we would have at least two independents in the chamber, instead it is almost certain that the political party will sweep this matter under the rug and take no action as these kinds of prohibitions only apply to the little people.
The day after the election, Andy and I took to the airwaves of 550 WSVA to talk about the results as well as the potential outcome of the presidential election. If you missed the show live, you can catch it here!
So much of the attention surrounding the 2020 election revolves around the race for president. However, here in Virginia we have a multitude of other contests such as U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, city councils, school boards, and the like. In addition, there will be two amendments to the Virginia Constitution on the ballot.
The first amendment deals with the issue of redistricting. Presently, the General Assembly draws the lines for the legislative districts in the state. The House of Delegates draw the maps for the 100 House of Delegate seats and the Virginia Senate does likewise for their 40 member body. However, given the rules, whichever political party holds a majority of the seats in that chamber more or less has a blank check to draw the lines as they see fit. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that as part of my graduate research at WVU, I found a statistically significant increase in the number of Republican seats gained after the last two redistricting sessions in the House of Delegates as compared to other elections where there was no redistricting. Who controlled the House of Delegates during the last two redistricting sessions? The Republicans. Now if the tables were turned, I’m relatively certain that the Democrats would have done the same. After all, that is the Virginia way. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound particularly fair, does it? Legislators choosing their voters as compared to the other way around.
In order to learn more about Amendment 1, I reached out to several pro-Amendment 1 people (FairMapsVA, the League of Women Voters, and Delegate Sam Rasoul D-Roanoke) and several anti-Amendment 1 people (Vote No on #1 and Delegate Mark Levine D-Alexandria) to hear their arguments. I’m still waiting to hear back from Del. Rasoul.
Supporters of Amendment 1 claim that if the people pass the legislation in November then Virginia will no longer suffer from partisan gerrymandering. The process will be fairer and some add that it will be free from the control of political parties. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But are these statements true?
To answer that question, it is important to read Amendment 1 rather than let me or anyone else tell you what it says. You can find the text on the Department of Elections website but I will also post it here.
Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth, that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on, but not changed by, the General Assembly and enacted without the Governor’s involvement and to give the responsibility of drawing districts to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the redistricting commission fails to draw districts or the General Assembly fails to enact districts by certain deadlines?
It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Including citizens into the process ought to make the process more fair, shouldn’t it? But there are many unanswered questions here. Who are the legislators involved? How are the citizens selected for the commission? Do they need a simple majority of the commission in order to approve the districts? Fortunately, the Department of Elections includes all of these answers if we simply read further.
The eight legislative commissioners are appointed by the political party leadership in the state Senate and the House of Delegates, with an equal number from each house and from each major political party. The eight citizen commissioners are picked by a committee of five retired circuit court judges. Four of the retired judges are selected by party leaders in the Senate and the House from a list compiled by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. These four judges pick the fifth judge from the same list. This selection committee then chooses citizen commissioners from lists created by party leaders in the Senate and the House.
For starters, we see that according to the amendment, the commission, by law can only include Republicans and Democrats. There will be no independents or third-party legislators or citizens. As for their selection, we see that party leaders get to create the list of citizens who are eligible to serve. That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Rather than a fair, nonpartisan commission, they create a body with the political parties’ fingers all over the selection process. Given what you know about politics, do you think the parties will select good, honest citizens who are fair-minded or instead select party loyalists who are more than happy to advance their party’s wellbeing at the expense of their fellow Virginians? I know which one I think would be far more likely.
Moving on, we find
For a plan to be submitted for the General Assembly’s approval, at least six of the eight citizen commissioners and at least six of the eight legislative commissioners must agree to it. Additionally, for plans for General Assembly districts to be submitted, at least three of the four Senators on the commission have to agree to the Senate districts plan and at least three of the four Delegates on the commission have to agree to the House of Delegates districts plan.
Given that four of the eight citizens are Republicans and the rest are Democrats and four of the eight legislators are Republicans and the remainder are Democrats, it seems highly likely that compromise maps would not occur as each side jockeys for an advantage, carving the largest number of favorable districts for his or her political party. In addition, if one political party thinks that they may get a better deal through the Supreme Court drawn maps, members of one political party could intentionally scuttle negotiations in order to shift full responsibility to an unelected and unaccountable branch of the government.
I have found that Republicans generally favor Amendment 1 while Democrats are opposed to it. This makes sense from a political perspective. After having a free hand to gerrymander Virginia for the last two cycles (except for one instance with the Virginia Senate lines), Republicans are now in the minority. If this amendment doesn’t pass then Republicans will have no say in redistricting. By contrast, now that Democrats hold the majority in the entire General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s they would be eager to draw lines that will help ensure their party’s dominance for the next election cycle.
Make no mistake. The redistricting system we have currently in Virginia is bad. The maps are gerrymandered by legislators in the majority party in order to favor the majority party. But, unfortunately Amendment 1 doesn’t really address or fix any of these problems.
Does Amendment 1 establish a nonpartisan commission to draw the boundary lines? No
Does Amendment 1 prevent legislators from choosing their voters? No
Does Amendment 1 put redistricting in the hands of the people, not the politicians? Given that the politicians get to choose which people are involved, definitely not.
Does Amendment 1 include independent or third party voices in the commission? No
Does Amendment 1 make it easy for one of the two major political parties to stonewall the commission and force judicially-drawn maps? Yes
Is there any language whatsoever in Amendment 1 that forbids gerrymandering, that prevents the commission from carving up Virginia like a Christmas ham, doling out as many safe districts as possible to each of the two major political parties? I can’t find it, can you?
Don’t get me wrong. Virginia needs redistricting reform. And although Amendment 1 might sound nice at first glance, it does not address or correct the major flaws with our current system. The players may have changed but the rotten gerrymandering system remains. Sure, it would be great to have citizens involved, but when you realize that these citizens will be chosen based upon their loyalty to a political party and that legislators and political parties will still have their fingers in the pie, Amendment 1 looks like a bait and switch to confuse Virginia’s voters and trick them into supporting a system which doesn’t actually do what its supporters claim it does.
After examining the arguments both in favor and opposition, for the reasons I list above I strongly encourage you to vote no on Amendment 1. We need to do better. Fortunately, there are better ideas and options out there. One such example is HJ143. Go give it a look and tell me it isn’t better than Amendment 1.
With less than a month to go before the 2020 Presidential Election, Andy Schmookler and I discuss our predictions for the November contest. We both predict that Biden is favored in the presidential race, easily winning Virginia, but that doesn’t mean that his victory is a sure thing. Although I would have liked to spend more time on the subject, I also spoke about Amendment 1 to the Virginia Constitution and why, if you support free and fair redistricting, you ought to vote no.
On September 9th, Andy Schmookler and I appeared on WSVA for our monthly political discussion. The main topic of the day was the upcoming presidential election. However, given the pandemic we also spoke on that issue, including mask wearing as well as briefly touching upon Michael Cohen’s new book on President Trump.
Earlier today, Representative Ben Cline (VA-6) was the featured speaker at First Friday in Harrisonburg. Republican City Council candidate Dr. Kathleen Kelley also spoke. Although I missed the first 30 seconds or so of Cline’s speech, I recorded the vast majority of it including the question and answer part that followed. The photo of Rep. Cline in the video is not current but rather is from an event in 2016.
This morning, July 8th, Andy and I spoke for our monthly political hour on 550 AM, WSVA. The topics included the continuing pandemic and the response, the health of the Virginia Republican Party, and Russia placing bounties on U.S. soldiers.
Yesterday, Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26) sent out a highly partisan email lambasting Democrats for supposedly doing away with “free, open and fair elections” in the Commonwealth. For those who subscribe to his messages, it is typical of his current tactics. He rails against Democrats as enemies of freedom by spreading fear and deception while encouraging his readers to support the Republican Party and to “vote Red” regardless of any ideological consideration. As one example of this behavior, in February he made a Facebook post claiming that Virginia Democrats sought to ban “livestock, cars and airplanes”. Although I asked for him to share a bill from the 2020 General Assembly session which actually would outlaw any of these things, there was no response.
The truth is that Mark Obenshain doesn’t care at all about promoting “free, open and fair elections.” How do I know this? Back in 2014, I ran for Harrisonburg City Council. I found it surprising that, in order for my name to be listed on the ballot, I had to collect the signatures of 125 registered voters in the city. Neither my Republican nor Democratic opponents had to do likewise. As unequal ballot access is not the mark of “free, open and fair elections” after the race was over I drafted a bill for the Virginia General Assembly which declared that all candidates, regardless of partisan affiliation, had to jump through the same hoops to be listed on the ballot. I presented the bill to my state senator, Mark Obenshain. However, Obenshain told me that he was strongly opposed to my idea, declaring that only Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to run for office.
To further drive this point home, in the following 2015 General Assembly session, Obenshain sponsored a bill to enact party registration. His bill would require all voters to declare themselves as Republicans, Democrats, or independents. No other choices were allowed. Furthermore, Virginia taxpayers would continue to have to foot the bill for Republican and Democratic primaries, but a good portion of them would no longer be allowed to participate in these state-sponsored contests. As Senator Petersen (D-34) pointed out, “I understand that the purpose of the gentleman’s bill is to restrict participation in the primaries.” Fortunately, Obenshain’s bill was defeated. Senator Obenshain tried his bill again in 2017 and I diligently lobbied as many of the members of the General Assembly as I could against it. This time, the bill died in committee.
Senator Obenshain’s email also decries the governor’s suggestion to move local May elections to November due to concerns over the Coronavirus. There is considerable evidence to suggest that moving local elections to November would help Democratic candidates at the expense of Republicans. A majority of Virginians will almost certainly vote for the Democratic nominee for president, and it is likely that, when voters cast their vote against President Trump, they will also vote against any candidate who shares his partisan affiliation. By contrast, if a Democrat were in the White House, I assume that Obenshain would support moving local elections to November in order to improve the chances of his party’s nominees.
The only aspect of Obenshain’s email that I agree with is his desire for citizens to be required to present some form of identification in order to vote. We have to present ID in order to engage in a multitude of activities such as buying alcohol, flying in a plane, or renting a car. However, does it have to be a photo ID as Obenshain insists? Not necessarily; any ID which can be used to verify a person should be sufficient. And just because an ID has a photo, that doesn’t necessarily make it valid. For example, sometimes students create fake driver’s licenses in order to purchase alcohol underage. Would individuals also use fake IDs in order to vote? It is certainly possible though I would expect the number of people who would do so to be a very small amount.
Although Obenshain may sound sincere in his email, given his actions over the last several years, I don’t believe that he cares at all about “free, fair and open elections” and, in fact, has shown that he is happy to undermine the concept of “free, fair and open elections” should it serve his political interests. He’s willing to support rigging the political game if it benefits himself and the Republican Party but is upset when the Democrats employ similar tactics. This behavior is hypocritical.
Well, we may all be stuck inside due to the Corona virus, but that doesn’t mean that we have to cancel our monthly radio show about politics, now does it?
On Wednesday, Andy and I called into the station to speak about the lockdown as well as local, state, and national politics. If you missed the show live, you can listen to it here.