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Editorial: Will redistricting end Roanoke's blue senate streak?

Rasoul and Edwards

Del. Sam Rasoul (left) and Sen. John Edwards, both Democrats from Roanoke, discussed their takes issues that dominated the most recent General Assembly session at a town hall meeting at the Higher Education Center on March 17, 2015.

Our state legislators have two years to think about what the newly redrawn House and Senate districts will mean for them.

Democrats in the city of Roanoke, a small blue dot in a sea of Republican red, also will want to take this time to think about what the new boundaries will mean for future efforts.

Attorney John Edwards, a Democratic moderate (he once described himself as “Jeffersonian,” while a colleague once described him as a “yellow dog Democrat”) who has represented the Roanoke region in the Virginia Senate since 1996, gets to weigh whether he’ll fight for reelection in a district that now leans Republican.

The map-making masters employed by the Supreme Court of Virginia have put him in with David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, a 37-year-old second-term senator who has indicated that he has no plans to move house.

At 78, a year younger than President Joe Biden, Edwards has a record of public service that stretches before 1980 — the year he was appointed by Jimmy Carter as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia for an eventful 18-month stint that cracked down on corruption and safety violations in the coalfields.

A former U.S. Marine and longtime Democratic activist, Edwards has deep Roanoke roots. A state champion pole vaulter for Patrick Henry High School whose father, Richard Edwards, served as Roanoke’s mayor in the 1940s and later became a judge, John Edwards followed up an unsuccessful 1992 run for Congress with a term as Roanoke’s vice mayor.

Causes he’s championed through a quarter century in the state Senate include the founding of the Roanoke Higher Education Center, the return of passenger rail to Roanoke, the expansion of Medicaid, mental health system reform and increasing the number of judges on the Virginia Court of Appeals from 11 to 17.

Low key, soft spoken and scholarly, Edwards was at odds until recently with his party’s stance on gun control. During his reelection campaign in 2015, he was once again endorsed by the National Rifle Association, with an “A” rating.

In 2008 and in 2009, Edwards helped defeat bills requiring criminal background checks for all firearms sales at gun shows, legislation that then-Gov. Tim Kaine sought after the April 16, 2007, mass shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 33 students and faculty.

By 2019, in light of alarmingly routine large-scale gun violence nationwide, Edwards had changed his mind. The next year, with a new Democratic majority controlling the General Assembly, Edwards in his position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw the vetting and passage of several gun control bills, including one requiring criminal background checks for all private gun sales. Even so, Edwards did help thwart a bill that would have prohibited sales of assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2020 that created the first-ever Virginia Redistricting Commission. (In these pages, Edwards expressed opposition to the amendment, saying it didn’t do enough to safeguard the rights of minority voters.)

Inaugurated last year, the commission consisted of eight Democrats and eight Republicans, charged with drawing new voting districts in response to the latest federal census data. Unable to reach a compromise on any of their appointed tasks, the commission effectively conceded the duty to the Virginia Supreme Court, which gave us the maps approved Dec. 28.

Edwards’ seat appeared to be in jeopardy since the first map proposals appeared in September — even the Democratic version placed him in a Republican-tilted district. The state Supreme Court’s final version serves him better, but still leaves his political future in doubt, even after five decisive victories in contested elections.

The repercussions of the boundary change extend beyond Edwards’ career. Among Democrats there’s been an assumption that Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, would be Edwards’ logical successor. Though Rasoul’s residence remains within a district that’s likely safe for Democratic House of Delegates candidates, a hop over to the Senate will hold more risk going forward.

Rasoul demonstrated an admirable willingness to court voters deep in GOP territory when he sought the Democratic nomination for attorney general during last year’s statewide primary. This trait could serve him well should he ever decide to make that legislative leap.

– Roanoke Times

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