During a discussion in the House of Delegates in the final days of the 46-day General Assembly session in Richmond, lawmakers were hashing over the details regarding the creation of a 16-member redistricting commission that will redraw Virginia’s political redistricting map after the 2020 decennial census. Despite objections from some African-American legislators, the bipartisan H.J. 615 passed through the state legislature in a 83-14 vote in the House.
One of the takeaways from the discussion was not so much the inner workings of the legislation, but what one Republican delegate said after 11 of 14 African-American delegates opposed the resolution.
“We have great concerns about having African-American representation in the room for redistricting,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “And this doesn’t guarantee that,” he added, according to a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Opposition to the legislation came amid the contentious lawsuit over what the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia called “unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.” In 2018, the court ruled that the General Assembly improperly prioritized racial demographics during the 2011 redistricting process to position African-American voters into majority-minority districts. While Democrats have argued the attempt was to dilute minority voting power, Republicans have reiterated that the 2011 plan was passed with help from the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus.
Responding to concerns from Delegate Bagby, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the architect of the 2011 plan, said his party has made a concerted effort to promote African-American inclusion.
“Republicans have had more African-Americans on key committees than when the Democrats were in control,” he added.
Politifact, a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials, then decided to wade in and decide whether Delegate Jones’ response was true or false.
When Jones said “key committees” he was reportedly referring to the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee and the business regulations-controlling Commerce and Labor Committee – an explanation that Delegate Bagby agreed with.
The House was last under Democratic control in 1997, with a 52-47-1 majority, led by then-House Speaker Tom Moss (D-Norfolk). During the 2019 session, Republicans held a 51-49 majority, led by House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
A speaker is chosen by the party in power at the beginning of the session, who then controls all committee assignments.
In 1997, when the House had 10 African-American lawmakers, three served on the 22-member Appropriations Committee, roughly proportional to their membership in the House. In 2019, when the House had 14 African-American lawmakers, six served on the panel – double their proportion in the House.
In 1997, two African-American legislators served on the precursor to the Commerce and Labor Committee – the Corporations, Insurance, and Banking Committee. This year, four were on the panel – one more than they would have under proportionality.
Therefore, during the 2019 legislative session, which was under GOP control, 10 of 14 African-American delegates sat on a key committee. Moreover, while African-American representation in the General Assembly’s lower chamber rose by 40 percent between 1997 and 2019, it increased by 100 percent on the Appropriations Committee and 50 percent on Commerce and Labor Committee.
When asked if he “had any concerns about minority representation on House committees,” Delegate Bagby replied, “No arguments there.”
In the end, Politifact rated Delegate Jones’ claim of Republican diversity “true.”