What’s politics without a little controversy? Let’s take a closer look at the one that’s erupted to our west.
State Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, announced on March 5 that he would not be seeking a new term after 18 years in the General Assembly. That news was big enough as is, but it was compounded by the curious timing — Carrico’s announcement came after the deadline for candidates to file for the Republican nomination. By then, Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, who had been tipped off by Carrico, had already filed. To everyone’s surprise, so did another candidate who had gotten his own anonymous tip about what was going on. Ken Heath found out Carrico was leaving just 30 minutes before the filing deadline and that the paperwork to seek the nomination had to be filed in person with the party’s district chairman. Heath jumped in his car and sped to the chairman’s home, getting his paperwork in with just two minutes to spare.
It’s a good thing for Heath, who’s from Marion, that he lived so close to the district chairman. This is a district that stretches from Wythe County to Lee County. There are lots of places that would have simply been too far away — from the eastern end in Fries to the western at the Cumberland Gap, it’s a 3½ hour drive, and that’s assuming you don’t get behind a tractor on U.S. 58.
To some — well, pretty much everyone — this sure looked like Carrico was trying to game the system to hand-pick his successor. That wouldn’t be that much of an issue if this were a competitive district. Republicans who might have otherwise sought the nomination might be upset, but the general populace at large would still have a choice in November. However, this isn’t a competitive district. Over the past decade, the worst Republican performance in a statewide election in that district was 66 percent. The average has been 73 percent. In the past four elections, the average GOP performance has been 77.5 percent. This already-Republican district is becoming even more Republican. Maybe there will be a Democratic candidate in the fall but it won’t matter; the Republican nomination is all that matters. And it’s not even a primary, open to all voters. The nomination will be decided in a party mass meeting on April 25. A relative handful of people will decide, in effect, who will be the next state senator. This is what happens when you have what amounts to one-party rule. There is less democracy happening here than there was under the old Byrd Machine, which controlled the Virginia Democratic Party for many decades. The Byrd Machine at least held primaries — although the electorate was pretty restricted then. Still, more people voted then than will likely take part in this nomination process.
Bottom line: We have a retiring legislator handing his seat over to his preferred successor without the benefit of a competitive election. However, the same thing could happen in a strongly Democratic district, as well. The reality is we have relatively few competitive districts in the state. Some of that is due to gerrymandering, but only some. No matter how you draw the districts, Southwest Virginia will be uniformly Republican. Voters there have realigned sharply into one party just as other parts of the state have become predictably Democratic. No one should be surprised that parties guaranteed to win act this way. It’s a shame that Pillion has been caught up in a controversy he didn’t create. He’s one of the bright stars in our legislative universe — a recognized expert on opioid addiction (he’s a dentist in his non-political life) and a creative thinker about economic development in a part of the state that is long overdue for some creative thinking.
Pillion has given diplomatic answers about all this, but perhaps what he should have said was: “Heck yes, we orchestrated this. Richmond isn’t a place for people who play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. Every year we in Southwest Virginia are getting outvoted by Northern Virginia and it’s only going to get worse. If Southwest Virginia is going to be heard, we need someone who’s a cut-throat political operator. Next question?” In the Game of Thrones version, he’d then wipe the blood off his sword and demand a seat on the Small Council.
OK, maybe he’s better off not taking our advice. But there is some truth in our fanciful response: Some of the people running for legislative seats in Southwest Virginia this fall will be running for seats that won’t be there in a few years. The question is not whether we lose seats to Northern Virginia in the next census-inspired redistricting, but how many — and which ones. One of the things that didn’t get as much attention as it should have in this year’s session was the passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to set in motion something that comes close to non-partisan redistricting. The amendment that passed — and which must be passed again next year, then approved by voters — isn’t exactly what anti-gerrymandering activists wanted, but it comes reasonably close. It would establish a redistricting commission that, most notably, would have an equal number of legislators and citizens, the latter selected by a panel of retired judges. For the first time, this would inject an element of unpredictability into the results.
Right now, there are just two state senators who live west of the Roanoke Valley —Carrico and Ben Chafin, R-Russell. Come next year, that’s likely to be Pillion and Chafin. Those legislators also live in adjacent counties. Come the next redistricting in 2021, Republican map-makers would protect them and simply draw those already-big districts even bigger. An independent panel might well draw those two legislators into the same district because that’s more geographically logical.
It’s hard to speculate too much on what will happen, but we know that in the past we have lost entire districts. Which districts will disappear after 2021 and how will others be drawn? It could be that this whole controversy is over what amounts to a doomed seat. Likewise, the candidates now seeking the Republican nomination in Pillion’s House district might be competing for a seat that, as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, is but “a brief candle.” We know somebody’s seat in Southwest Virginia will get snuffed out, perhaps several.
That’s a pretty grim way to look at things, but it’s also a practical one. That’s why we think the answer we proposed to Pillion might really be the best one. Except maybe for the part about the sword.