11/10/10: In need of a civic renaissance

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

WE ARE just months away from the start of the General Assembly session, which convenes Jan. 12. Already, hundreds of bills have been pre-filed or carried over from last year, covering such issues as specialty license plates, prohibitions against use of “handheld personal communication devices” while driving, absentee voting for any reason and various celebrations and commendations.

However, the overriding issue of the upcoming session will be redistricting. Already, the redistricting subcommittee of the House of Delegates Committee on Privileges and Elections has held four of its six scheduled public hearings on the matter. Separately, the Senate counterpart has held two of its scheduled public hearings, with the Hampton Roads hearing coming up on Dec. 2 in Portsmouth.

Redistricting is the process by which electoral boundary lines are drawn. Based on the decennial census, the lines for state legislative and congressional districts are changed to reflect shifts in population within the state. Localities such as Norfolk, which has a ward system, are also affected, as those lines get redrawn as well.

Virginia has opted to continue to engage in partisan redistricting, whereby the party in charge draws the lines. With the Democrats in the majority in the state Senate and the Republicans in the majority in the House of Delegates, each body will likely draw its own lines — and protect its incumbents. The fight — if there is one — will be over the congressional lines. Given last week’s results, I’m not expecting much of a fight there.

I attended the House hearing that was held in Norfolk in September. What was most interesting to me was that all of the speakers wanted the same thing: keep the communities together. It didn’t matter if the speaker was a Republican or a Democrat.

A Republican from Chesapeake requested that his city be kept whole, while a Democrat from Norfolk did the same. A tea party member urged the committee, “Please don’t let partisan politics and incumbency taint the process. Do the right thing for the voters. Do the right thing for Virginia.”

The transcripts from the other House hearings (available on the website http:// dlsgis.state.va.us) seem to echo the thoughts of those in Hampton Roads. It appears the only ones who want partisan redistricting are the ones drawing the lines.

What’s at stake is participation in the process. If the result is pre-ordained, why bother voting? Such is the attitude of many — nearly 60 percent of Hampton Roads voters stayed home last week. As more and more people withdraw, we face what some have called a civic crisis.

According to a report issued by Better Together, a civic engagement project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, this is the second time America has endured such a crisis. The earlier one took place from 1870 to 1915, as rapid industrialization, technological change and urbanization “disrupted patterns of community organization.” What was experienced then sounds eerily familiar: crime, political corruption, a widening income gap and poor schools.

The report calls for a new civic renaissance, similar to that undertaken after those years. The idea was to change a system that no longer worked.

Nonpartisan — or at least bipartisan — redistricting could be such a step in Virginia’s civic renaissance. Allowing us to choose our representatives rather than them choosing us would go a long way toward reinvigorating our civic capital.