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Zach Joachim

Panel Discusses Solutions to ‘Bipartisan Problem’ of Gerrymandering

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Leading redistricting reform advocates and Virginia Commonwealth University students explored ways to end gerrymandering at a panel discussion hosted by the VCU Political Science Department.

“Redistricting in Virginia: A Bipartisan Problem” brought together students and experts to discuss the practice in which legislators draw political districts with partisan intent. Panelists expressed optimism regarding the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia and around the country.

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, the commonwealth’s leading redistricting reform group, said the current process for redrawing legislative districts lacks transparency.

“It’s like sausage making, but worse, as to how they get these districts. Some of the lines are just abstract works of art that should be in the ICA,” Cannon said, referring to VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art.

Dr. John Aughenbaugh, a professor in the VCU Political Science Department, said the U.S. Constitution is not specific about redistricting, and that is the root cause of gerrymandering. The Constitution’s “time, place and manner clause,” Aughenbaugh said, gives states the power to determine election logistics. The panelists agreed that this is the foundational cause of traditional partisan redistricting practices commonly referred to as gerrymandering.

But Cannon argued the constitutional ambiguity can be employed to end the same practice it fostered.

“What works for redistricting in Iowa doesn’t work in California and might not work in Ohio. We can learn from all of them to improve redistricting in Virginia,” Cannon said. He said the Constitution “gives us the laboratory of democracy the states are supposed to be.”

This state-by-state approach to tackling gerrymandering has prompted a national climate in which states are looking to the courts for answers. Pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court could mandate anti-gerrymandering legislation in states such as Colorado. Cannon said cases such as Bethune-Hill in Virginia, which alleges district lines were drawn based on racial demographics, could come down “any day now” and expedite the process.

Participants in Thursday’s panel discussed possible solutions to gerrymandering, such as having an independent commission draw political boundaries. But Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, said the solutions many reform advocates seek may simply not exist.

“This is complicated, and there is no perfect answer, or else we’d already be there,” Dunnavant said. “If you get voices in the room so that there’s transparency and accountability, that’s the best we can do.”

The panelists urged redistricting reform advocates to conceptualize solutions as approaches and principles in drawing districts, rather than logistical absolutes. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, emphasized trust and transparency as foundational principles for reforming the redistricting process.

“Trust among the people we represent is extremely important,” Aird said. “Right now they don’t trust that the process includes things like transparency, or the removal of the ‘sausage making.’”

In addition to a collective insistence that a principled approach is the answer, Aird and the other panelists considered the establishment of independent commissions as a viable end goal for redistricting advocates to look toward.

“If moving to an independent structure actually builds that trust among the people we represent, it seems like that would be the thing to do,” Aird said.

The panelists went on to caution those in attendance about setting too much store in the idea of independence and nonpartisanship in the redistricting process. In an inherently political process, there will always be bias, they said.

“You’re not going to get rid of politics. We’re deciding who gets to vote in what jurisdiction,” Aughenbaugh said. “That’s a fundamental element of almost any definition of democratic politics – who gets to hold whom accountable.”

The panelists agreed that any hopes for an absolute solution would be idealistic. Rather, they emphasized the need for institutional accountability and transparency between voters and their representatives in a process long devoid of such principles.

“You want the rules to reflect our communities,” Cannon said. “Some will be blue, some red, some a shade of purple. But what’s important is that the communities are making the decisions.”

Dunnavant added, “There will never be a redistricting map that does not get contested. And so the conversation is a little unrealistic to think we can be

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proscriptive enough in law to create something that everyone can agree on.”

Advocates Fight to End Gerrymandering in Virginia Supreme Court

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments Thursday in a case alleging that state lawmakers valued partisan politics over constitutional requirements in drawing 11 of the 100 districts for the House of Delegates.

Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021 – the state’s leading redistricting reform group – is heading the charge to end gerrymandering in Virginia both at the General Assembly and in the courtroom. Cannon said the districts in question distort natural political boundaries and ignore state-mandated size and shape regulations.

“Our compactness requirement should be a high priority since it’s in our state constitution,” Cannon said. “Clearly it wasn’t. Clearly partisan politics and discretionary criteria were valued over it.”

Cannon said his camp hopes for a decision to come down within the next two months.

Courts have long been wary of ruling on redistricting matters for fear of the political ramifications of their decisions. Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the “intentional seizure of the redistricting process” by a state court there.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month ruled the Republican-controlled legislature had drawn the state’s congressional districts with partisan intent. A remedial plan adopted by the court could swing three or four congressional districts the Democrats’ way. Republicans currently hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in Congress.

Bill Oglesby, an associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, said courts around the country are having difficulty adjudicating redistricting reform because it is a naturally political process. As in Pennsylvania, Virginia courts are caught in the political crossfires inherent in gerrymandering.

“The parties to this case are dealing with a classic Catch-22,” said Oglesby, who helped produce “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head,” a documentary advocating for an overhaul of Virginia’s redistricting system.

“The state constitution requires the General Assembly to draw compact districts, but lower courts have said the politicians can decide what is compact, and they are the very ones who have a political incentive to stretch the meaning of that term.”

With court proceedings slowed by political ramifications, redistricting reform proponents have been focused on legislation in hopes of establishing immediate criteria for redrawing Virginia’s legislative districts after the U.S. census in 2020:

  • Senate Bill 106 establishes criteria for districts to be redrawn after the 2020 census, including equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, compactness and communities of interest. The House of Delegates approved the legislation, 90-9, on Wednesday. HB 1598, a companion bill, was passed by the Senate on Monday, 23-17.
  • House Bill 312 sought to establish a commission to hold public hearings on the redistricting process. It died in a House Rules subcommittee on Feb. 13.
  • HB 205 would have required legislative districts to be redrawn should any state or federal court declare them unlawful or unconstitutional. The bill was left in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on Feb. 13.

Cannon said redistricting reform concerns a “fundamental question of fairness” he believes most Virginians agree upon.

“Voters should be able to choose their legislators, not the other way around,” Cannon said.

Athletes’ Artwork Scores Big at ‘Abstract’ Exhibit

By Zachary Joachim and Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis says art has been an inspirational factor in his athletic career.

“When I was a kid, I’d pick up fabric paint and draw cartoon characters on my jeans and shirts,” Davis said. “I don’t know where it came from; it was just something that followed me through the rest of my life.”

Art and athletics came together Friday when 1708 Gallery welcomed “The Abstract Athlete,” the first exhibition in Richmond to feature Davis and other professional athletes who have maintained an active art career.

“The Abstract Athlete” explores work centered on the collision of art, sports and science. It includes pieces by Brett Tomko, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, and Larry Sanders, a Virginia Commonwealth University basketball star who later played in the NBA, as well as by U.S. Army veterans such as Alicia Dietz and Joe Olney.

Their artwork will be on display at the gallery, 319 W. Broad St., until March 17.

Before the opening of the exhibit, the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center hosted a symposium to discuss the benefit of art in sport. It focused on the effects that creating art has on the mind and body.

Speakers included Davis, Dietz, former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Percy King and David Cifu, associate dean for innovation and system integration in VCU’s School of Medicine.

“Art can follow you, and you don’t even know it’s following you. Art will always come first to me, and sports will follow,” Davis said. “Not saying I don’t love sports; I enjoy the creative opportunities it gives me. But art is the best combination in my life.”

Within the first three minutes of the gallery’s opening, Davis’s pieces – “The Sea #1” and “The Sea #2” – sold, with proceeds benefiting the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts. The works feature bright-colored triangles laid over a monotone rectangular base, creating an eye-popping effect designed to have viewers diving into the deep blues and copper hues of the sea.

King’s two works use hand-carved wood segments in a variety of shapes and colors. King stacks the pieces upon one another, creating a 3-D effect that interprets shadows and lines through the shapes of wood. His first piece on display, “The Boxer,” features a pair of blue boxing gloves. His second piece, “Heavy is the crown,” is a portrait of Barack Obama.

King said art is integral to his performance on the football field.

“It helps with healing, athletic performance, rest – it’s really adding an efficiency element,” King said. “I do things in a more complex and rich way. Art adds that layer of complexity to our hardworking bodies and brains.”

Cifu echoed King’s message, saying art is therapeutic for people who have experienced mental or physical trauma.

“I’m an artist at a very small level,” Cifu said. “But maybe I’m a healing artist.”

Olney, who served in Iraq as a sergeant and combat engineer, also had one of his pieces sell within 30 minutes.

U.S. bobsledder Hillary Werth takes inspiration from the streets of New York through her painting “Escape.” The landscape features dark purple, red and yellow spray-painted graffiti art and textured backgrounds.

Tomko sticks to his roots in his two pieces, re-creating iconic moments in the history of Major League Baseball. His first, “The Great Bambino,” features New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. His second, “Color Line,” depicts Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues, running the bases.

Other artists participating in the exhibit include professional soccer player Jay DeMerit and painter Ridley Howard.

“The Abstract Athlete” is the name not only of the exhibit but also of an organization that brings together artists and professional athletes.

Business partners Ron Johnson and Chris Clemnar founded the group and spent two years planning the exhibit. Clemnar is a toy designer, and Johnson has been an art professor at VCU since 2003. Johnson hopes to display the exhibit internationally.

More information on the web

For more information about the artists, see www.theabstractathlete.com. The 1708 Gallery, a nonprofit space for new art, is located at 319 W. Broad St. Its website is at www.1708gallery.org, and the phone number is 804-643-1708.

VCU Athletics Highlights Sexual Assault Resources After Nassar Trial

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia Commonwealth University’s athletics department is seeking to ensure that student-athletes are aware of its resources to prevent and report sexual assault and misconduct in light of the Larry Nassar trial and related congressional inquiries.

Nassar, a former sports physician at Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics, is facing multiple sentences totaling more than 100 years in federal prison after decades of sexual abuse.

Three congressional inquiries targeting Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee are underway to determine if they ignored or enabled Nassar’s crimes. Michigan State’s Athletic Department is also under NCAA investigation, which has prompted athletic departments in universities nationwide to reevaluate their sexual assault policies.

In a report released last week, VCU Athletics said its program works closely with the university to maintain a culture conducive to reporting sexual assault or misconduct and raising awareness of their prevalence. The department conducts annual education, training and workshops, and brings in guest speakers for student-athletes.

"We take pride in working with our Office of Equity and Access Services and VCU Police to create a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault, harassment or gender discrimination,” said VCU Vice President and Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin. “We are fortunate to have such wonderful resources on our campus to educate our student-athletes.”

The department has actively participated in the It’s On Us movement, a national campaign against sexual assault on college campuses. As part of the initiative, VCU Athletics has hosted an assortment of events aimed at educating students and staff on the university’s protocol for handling instances of sexual misconduct.

For instance, Scott Lewis of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management spent a day with VCU Athletics during the fall semester, providing sexual assault education training for all staff and student-athletes.

The department has also collaborated with The Wellness Resource Center at VCU to provide two training workshops for student-athletes – the One Love Escalation workshop, which aims to educate athletes on the signs of relationship abuse, as well as a consent workshop.

“We take pride in knowing that we are leaders on our campus in creating a safe and supportive culture for all students,” McLaughlin said.

These resources available to athletes are in addition to existing sexual assault training requirements. All VCU students and employees are required to complete Not Anymore training, an online module that shares the university’s policies, reporting options and resources through real stories told by survivors.

The VCU Title IX office said the number of reports it receives has grown significantly over the last two years, signaling greater awareness of the university’s resources.

“Units such as Athletics and the Office of the Provost conduct additional education for faculty and staff in these key areas,” the Title IX office said in a statement. “We are a bystander-engaged community where we care and look out for one another and a broad culture of reporting, where people who see something say something.”

Additional information and resources can be found on the VCU Title IX website.

Proposals seek to spur growth in Virginia distillery industry

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia distillers ​may soon be toasting the General Assembly after the Senate passed a bill to let ​liquor manufacturers keep more of the money from selling their spirits in tasting rooms.

Currently, distilleries must sell their bottles to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, then buy them back at full retail price before pouring samples inside their tasting rooms. The markup averages 69 percent and can be as high as 93 percent, according to ABC.

But distilleries could keep the price markup under Senate Bill 803, introduced by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg. The Senate voted 23-16 in favor of the measure Friday. It is now before the House Appropriations Committee.

ABC currently takes about 55 percent of the gross revenues that distilleries make in their tasting rooms, said Scott Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in the Loudoun County town of Purcellville. After overhead and worker pay, he said, most Virginia distilleries lose money on such operations.  

Distilleries are a growing enterprise in Virginia, which considers itself the birthplace of American spirits. After serving two terms as president, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon to brew his own whiskey.

The industry does more than $160 million a year in business in terms of creating jobs, buying agricultural products and selling spirits, according to the Virginia Distillers Association.

Still, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared with neighboring Kentucky. Distilleries there have an annual economic impact of $8.5 billion, the Kentucky Distillers Association says.

Kentucky is one of the country’s largest producers of distilled spirits and, unlike Virginia, the industry is not controlled by the state government. Harris said Virginia distilleries are hampered by a “punitive landscape.”

Curtis Coleburn, a lobbyist for the Virginia Distillers Association, said SB 803 could  spur major growth in the commonwealth’s spirits industry.

“When the distilleries make a sale, half of the money goes to the state through taxes and profits because it’s managed through ABC,” Coleburn said. “Senate Bill 803 would allow the distillers to keep more of the proceeds for sales at the distillery stores and will enable them to hire more Virginians and expand their plans and grow the industry.”

Virginia distillers say they would like to make and sell their products on their premises at the cost of production. This would allow them to have profitable tasting rooms and generate tourism, said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director for the Virginia Distillers Association.

“We have to educate our legislators that, in order for the distilled spirits industry to really be a powerful economic generator for the commonwealth -- and it can be -- we’ve got to make these distillery stores profit generators for their operators,” Ciarametaro said.  

Belle Isle Moonshine in Richmond does not have a store on premise, but co-founder and CEO Vince Riggi said reducing the regulations on tasting room sales would benefit all distillers in the commonwealth.  

“We want to market Virginia spirits,” Riggi said. “We want to elevate the brand and showcase it to the consumers in the state.”

Fight against gerrymandering advances at Capitol

Sen. Glenn Sturtevant with OneVirginia2021 advocates. (Photo courtesy of OneVirginia2021)

 

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Two bills moving forward in the General Assembly, and two court cases challenging how political districts are drawn in Virginia, could chip away at gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.      

Gerrymandering, in which politicians redraw electoral districts to their favor, is under fire in legislatures across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to stop a Pennsylvania state court from requiring lawmakers there to redraw districts it had declared were products of the practice.

In Virginia, the Senate has passed a redistricting bill -- SB 106, introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. On Friday, a similar measure -- HB 1598, sponsored by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk -- cleared the House Privileges and Elections Committee 21-1 and will be considered next week by the full House.

Both bills seek to provide standards for drawing districts, with attention to equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, and respect for existing political boundaries, borders, size and communities of interest. Jones said lawmakers  must avoid the extreme configurations that have been used by political parties to gain an advantage in the past.
Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021, the state’s leading redistricting reform group, said he was encouraged by the progress of the legislation. He sees it as a step toward the ultimate goal of redistricting reform -- a constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting commission.

Under the group’s timeline, the amendment could receive required legislative approvals in 2019 and 2020, before being submitted to voters that fall. Districts could then be redrawn in 2021 with 2020 census data.

“The most important thing they (the bills) do is define some sort of good-government criterion, such as respect for local political boundaries,” Cannon said. “As a building year for us, this conversation is excellent. This is exactly where we want to be.”

But Cannon said the bills don’t go far enough. He said they “are missing explicit anti-gerrymandering language, though, and that’s a big miss.”

According to a poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, over 60 percent of Virginians support amending the state constitution to put a nonpartisan commission in charge of drawing political lines.

Although legislation establishing test-run redistricting commissions has died this session, Cannon said there is still a chance for the governor to appoint an advisory commission with the same responsibility as result of two court cases:

  • One, in the federal courts, centers on whether black voting strength was diluted when Republicans placed too many African American voters in certain districts. The U.S. Supreme Court last year ordered a lower court to re-examine the case. Cannon said he has been expecting a decision for weeks.

  • The other case, pending in the state court system, focuses on whether some districts were drawn in a partisan way. In many cases, for example, a city or county is divided between one or more legislative districts.  The case will be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court in March.

Cannon said decisions in those cases  could “put a wind under the sails” of the fight against gerrymandering by requiring  some districts to be redrawn.

Courts have historically been reluctant to strike down redistricting plans because of concerns over favoring a party in a political process. But recent decisions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have been cause for optimism, Cannon said.

“I think the odds of real redistricting reform this time next year are pretty high,” Cannon said. “We’ll see what the governor does, we’ll see what the courts do, we’ll see how much further the House Republicans are willing to go -- but the conversation is great.”

Panel Kills Bill Giving Puerto Ricans In-State College Tuition

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee has killed a bill that would have made residents of any U.S. territory hit by a major disaster – like Puerto Rico – eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee took the action Monday by rejecting HB 46, proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek urged the subcommittee to envision the devastation still evident in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in September. It was one of the strongest storms ever to hit the island.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico prepare for hurricanes every year,” Krizek said. “Five months after (Maria), the island is still struggling. The infrastructure damage is unimaginable.”

He said that 38 percent of homes on the island still do not have electricity. As a result, many Puerto Rican college students have had their educational plans disrupted.

President Donald Trump issued a Declaration of Major Disaster for the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 7 and for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on Sept. 21. Krizek’s bill would have made “Any resident of a United States territory for which a major disaster has been declared by the President of the United States in 2017” eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public institutions of higher education. The proposal would have given such citizens a four-year window to apply for the adjusted tuition opportunity.

“I’m sure these struggling students have good academic credentials and will seek to come here for educational opportunities. We can give them this helping hand up,” Krizek said. “Let’s support them in this time of need by allowing them – for the next four years – to apply as in-state students.”

He added, “I’m sure if the shoe was on the other foot, Puerto Ricans would be giving us that same opportunity.”

Anita Nadal, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent and Virginia resident for more than 17 years, spoke in support of the bill at Monday’s subcommittee meeting. Nadal is an assistant professor in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Education is an investment in our future,” Nadal said. “Many young (Puerto Rican) people are very eager to continue their education, and I know they would be more than happy to come to Virginia Commonwealth. The universities here would be a wonderful way to help our fellow citizens that are living a human crisis at this time.”

The vote to have the Krizek’s bill “passed by indefinitely,” effectively killing it for the legislative session, split along party lines:

·       Five Republicans voted in favor of killing the measure: Dels. Nick Rush of Montgomery County, Steven Landes of Augusta County, Charles Poindexter of Franklin County, Christopher Stolle of Virginia Beach and Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County.

·       Three Democrats opposed killing the bill: Dels. Luke Torian of Prince William County, Betsy Carr of Richmond and Cliff Hayes of Suffolk.

Despite the final vote, Krizek’s office indicated that the subcommittee gave the matter due diligence and that opponents of the bill were concerned about its costs.

“The House Appropriations Committee didn’t feel like there was enough money to be able to grant in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students over Virginian students,” Krizek’s legislative aide said. “But we think everybody was sympathetic to the cause.”

Proposals Seek to End Gerrymandering in Virginia

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An assortment of bills designed to revise standards for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts could be the beginning of the end for gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.

Gerrymandering, the practice of politicians redrawing electoral districts to gain an advantage, has drawn attention and disdain in recent years. North Carolina’s congressional map was declared unconstitutional last week by a panel of federal judges, who ruled legislators had drawn it with “invidious partisan intent.”

House Bill 276, proposed by Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, would create a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The commission would determine the criteria for remedial redistricting plans if a court declares any congressional or legislative district unlawful. Under the current system, the legislators themselves determine the criteria for redrawing these lines.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years in accordance with the U.S. census, but a number of federal court cases have the potential to require immediate redistricting in certain Virginia localities.

“I think it favors both parties to be able to make sure that we have the body and the rules available by which we would be able to draw lines should a court case come down a certain way,” Rasoul said. “I look forward to being able to work with Republicans and Democrats to get this done.”

Rasoul said redistricting reform hinges upon a “fundamental question of fairness” that he believes the majority of Virginians agree upon, regardless of party affiliation.

So far this session, legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – have introduced about 20 bills that would affect how political districts are drawn. They include:

  • HB 205, which would establish criteria for remedial redistricting.
  • HB 158, which would authorize the General Assembly to make technical adjustments to existing redistricting standards.
  • Senate Bill 106, which would create a size limit for congressional and state legislative districts.

Additionally, lawmakers have proposed eight constitutional amendments. The amendments – which require approval from the General Assembly this year and next, then approval by voters – would fully prohibit gerrymandering.

But this session, legislators must craft the state budget for the next two years, and it’s not realistic for them to approve a constitutional amendment as well, according to advocates of redistricting reform such as Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021.

However, Cannon is optimistic that measures such as Rasoul’s proposed commission can be steps toward ending gerrymandering. Cannon said support for the initiative is widespread, suggesting “70-some” percent of Virginians desire redistricting reform.

“This could be a dry run for setting up a commission, letting them do their work under good rules and a transparent process,” Cannon said. “By this time next year, if the process is good, we can adopt it; if it needs tweaks, we can do that, too.”

Cannon believes the election of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and an influx of new Virginia legislators reflect a “good-government wave.” Cannon said the political climate is not conducive to incumbent protection schemes like gerrymandering.

“There’s definitely reason for optimism. This is not a nerdy little issue anymore. This is the ethical issue in politics,” Cannon said. “The overall goal here is a constitutional amendment for Virginia so that we can take it out of the hands of the politicians, have good clear rules about keeping communities together and have transparency in the process.”

Although advocates such as Cannon are enthusiastic about the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia, political experts are more skeptical.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, noted that officials elected under the current redistricting system are not likely to support changes such as interim commissions, much less a constitutional amendment in 2019.

“Despite strong public opinion in favor of redistricting reform, the elected officials who benefited from the current system have so little enthusiasm to change it,” Rozell said.

“Further, not everyone is convinced that a reformed system will do any better than the one that we have now. Public opinion may be in favor (of redistricting reform), but this is not an issue that generates much citizen passion. With no strong public passion on the issue, there isn’t a lot of pressure on elected officials to push major reforms.”

Nevertheless, Rasoul believes there is bipartisan support for tackling gerrymandering in Virginia and establishing new ways to draw political districts.

“What we need is not Republicans or Democrats fighting as to who’s going to draw the unfair lines,” Rasoul said. “It’s once and for all creating rules and boundaries so that districts are drawn fairly given population, political boundaries, common communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act and a number of different criteria that need to be considered.”

Cannon is confident that the bills before the General Assembly can act as stepping stones toward the goal of eliminating gerrymandering in the commonwealth.

“We have a big opportunity this session to have this conversation in preparation for getting the final product ready to go this time next year,” Cannon said. “The reason they’ve been able to get away with this is it’s a dirty deed done once a decade that they think we all forget about. We’re not forgetting anymore.”

3 Legislators Call for Stricter Pipeline Standards

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Three Democratic legislators from western Virginia said Thursday they would fight for stricter environmental standards if authorities allow the construction of two natural gas pipelines across the state.

Dels. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Chris Hurst of Blacksburg joined Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke at a news conference to discuss their concerns about the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which many environmentalists and rural Virginians oppose.

“We cannot authorize the building of pipelines, but we sure have the right to protect our water,” Rasoul said. He hopes the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will come out against the projects.

“To us it’s clear that we are going to be able to make the case to DEQ moving forward that these pipelines are not safe,” Rasoul said.

Hurst said the Atlantic Coast Pipelines and Mountain Valley Pipeline are not done deals.

“There are still several ways for these pipeline projects to be stalled, delayed or canceled altogether,” Hurst said. “My feeling all along has always been what we need is more rigorous data collection.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

The Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline projects in October, but opponents are continuing efforts to block them.

The Roanoke-area legislators expressed concerns over water-quality standards and procedures that FERC and DEQ applied to the proposed pipeline projects in Virginia.

Hurst has introduced HB 1188, which would require ground-water testing and monitoring of all pipelines of a certain size.

“It would apply to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Hurst said. “That means we’re going to need daily monitoring of these pipelines to make sure that if anything does go wrong, we can put a stop to the transmission of that gas until we fix things.”

The three legislators are optimistic that fellow Democrat Ralph Northam, who will be sworn in as governor on Saturday, will work with them to address concerns about the pipelines. Edwards called Northam an environmentalist who shares their stance on the issue.

“We call on Gov. Northam and the DEQ to immediately take and appreciate the full authority we have as a state to protect our water resources,” Rasoul said. “We think it is very clear, other states have done so, and we need to do the same.”

Rasoul said legislators can’t stop the construction of pipelines but they can erect a firewall of environmental standards to mitigate the potential impact of such projects in the commonwealth.

Hurst said the issue isn’t just about the collective environment but also about the property rights and safety of Virginia citizens.

“What we’re focused on is ensuring that landowners’ rights are protected, and what we can do to try and stave off any potential negative consequence or catastrophe that could happen if these pipelines are constructed.”

VCU edges Richmond in overtime in A10

By Zach Joachim and Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

PITTSBURGH – A well-rounded stat sheet, a dominant 14-6 overtime period and some timely senior leadership propelled VCU to its fifth consecutive Atlantic 10 championship finals after a heart-stopping 87-77 win over the University of Richmond.

VCU’s scoring depth lead the Black and Gold to victory – the Rams posted 35 bench points, compared to Richmond’s meager two. All five UR starters finished in double figures, while three of VCU’s starters reached the mark.

Senior guard JeQuan Lewis led the Rams in scoring with 18, followed closely by redshirt-freshman guard Samir Doughty (17), redshirt-senior forward Mo Alie-Cox (15) and junior forward Justin Tillman (11). Nine VCU players scored in the contest.

“We outrebounded them and scored 56 points in the paint,” said VCU coach Will Wade. “That’s our formula. We made some plays when we needed to.”

Richmond freshman guard De’Monte Buckingham was nothing short of sensational – he led all scorers with 26 and went 9-14 from the field.

The Rams found themselves in dire straits at the end of regulation. Richmond’s freshman guard Nick Sherod hit a corner-three with 25 seconds left to give the Spiders a 3-point lead.

When all seemed lost, Wade and the Rams looked to their senior leader and asked the world of him – and Lewis delivered.

The first-team all-conference guard rose up from the wing and tied the game after running a curl off a screen in the post. Junior guard Jonathan Williams fed him right in the shooting pocket on a play Wade said the Rams run frequently.

“I had shooting in my mind before the play even started,” Lewis said. “We practice that play a lot.”

On the final possession of regulation, Richmond senior guard ShawnDre’ Jones had a chance to give his Spiders the win. UR got the switch it wanted, with Alie-Cox matched up against Jones on the perimeter. The VCU senior forward showed off his versatility by forcing a fade-away, contested jump shot that went begging.

“A team that forces overtime wins 72 percent of the time,” Wade said. “They were going to have hit a crazy shot in regulation to beat us – and they didn’t.”

“Mo helps us so much defensively. How many other fives can switch off defensively onto a guard and just bottle him up and make him shoot an 18 foot, contested fade-away jump shot? He’s a freak of nature – that’s why he’s going to be playing in the NFL, or whatever he’s going to do.”

Freshman guard Samir Doughty, who was recently relegated to a six-man role after starting for much of the season, was a catalyst for the Black and Gold. Doughty’s ability to get to the rim was key for a VCU team that – according to Wade – settled for too many jump shots in the second half.

“We took so many pull-up jumpers in the second half, I was so mad,” Wade said. “Samir’s instinct is to put his head down and drive the ball. We needed that mentality today.”

Lewis agreed. “Samir is a great player and scorer. We need that from him. He’s scrappy.”

The VCU Rams will face the University of Rhode Island Rams on Sunday in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Tip-off is scheduled for 12:30 on CBS. The last time the Rams played each other, Rhode Island out muscled VCU and won by a final of 69-59 up north. RI did not visit the Siegel Center this year.

“It’s going to be up and down. It’s going to be physical,” Lewis said. “We have good guards; they have good guards. We have good post players; they have good post players.”

“They obliterated us on the glass,” Wade said. “We weren’t strong in the paint. They’re the one team in the league that’s as physical as we are.”

One thing is for certain: By Sunday afternoon, a team named the Rams will be the 2017 Atlantic 10 tournament champions.

VCU beats George Mason in A10 tournament

By Zach Joachim and Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

PITTSBURGH – In his third game back following a foot injury, freshman guard De’Riante Jenkins led the VCU Rams with 15 points to knock George Mason University out of the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals, 71-60, Friday evening.

“It’s really nice to have De’Riante back,” said VCU coach Will Wade. “He was tremendous.”

PPG Paints Arena felt a lot like a home game at the Siegel Center Friday night, as RamNation traveled in superb fashion. At least 3,000 VCU supporters made their voices heard in the Steel City.

Following nine ties and 10 lead changes, VCU pulled away in the final six minutes of the game. Senior guards JeQuan Lewis and Doug Brooks fueled the late onslaught with a pair of three pointers each.

Lewis pointed to his team’s mindset as a cause for the late run.

“(We got) more aggressive,” Lewis said. “We were settling a lot for perimeter shots. We just ran plays to get us driving downhill.”

Lewis knocked down five shots in the second half en route to 13 points on the evening, following a dry spell for the Dixon, Tennessee, native. He also recorded six assists and three steals.

Redshirt-senior forward Mo Alie-Cox went 0-4 from the floor and junior forward Justin Tillman recorded seven points. The struggles down low rendered it pivotal for the guards to knock down outside shots. Alie-Cox did, however, did chip in a pair of vintage blocks, which came on consecutive possessions in the second half and fueled the late momentum shift.

VCU shot 57 percent from beyond the arc in the second half, largely thanks to Lewis (2-4), Brooks (2-3) and Jenkins (3-3).

The Black and Gold applied pressure early and often, attacking the Patriots in a full-court zone press for most of the night before dropping back into a half-court zone. The Rams forced 14 turnovers and created 20 points off the resulting opportunities.

“We talk about the last six minutes of the game a lot – we call it winning time,” said Wade, whose team finished second in the A10 regular season. The conference champion, Dayton, lost to Davidson in the A10 tournament earlier Friday.

“We executed down the stretch,” Wade said. “When we’re making threes like that, the scoreboard really adds up. They threw a bunch of junk defenses at us, and it took a second for us to adjust. But once we figured it out, our guys were tremendous. I’m really proud of all of them.”

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