Redistricting map a mixed bag for Isle of Wight

Published 3:35 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Gerrymandering, a word inspired by a Massachusetts governor (named Gerry) who once drew political boundaries so creatively that a particular district resembled a salamander, has in recent decades been motivated mostly by race and party politics. Its more time-honored use, though, has been to keep incumbents in office.

After last week’s release of proposed new congressional and General Assembly maps, incumbents across the commonwealth surely are missing the power to gerrymander — not so much for their political parties as for their own hides.

Some 30 incumbent state legislators were placed in districts with legislative colleagues, meaning a bunch of incumbent delegates and senators would lose their seats if the maps are adopted as expected.

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Others, like Delegate Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, were placed in districts with significantly different partisan makeup than their current districts. Brewer, who was elected last month to a third term representing the solidly Republican 64th District in the House of Delegates, would be part of the Democratic-leaning 84th District under the new House map.

Credit — or blame, depending on your perspective — for the new maps goes indirectly to the voters of Virginia, who rejected gerrymandering in all forms in a 2020 constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of voters statewide took legislative redistricting away from the General Assembly and gave it to a bipartisan commission, which failed spectacularly this fall in its first attempt to do the job because members from both political parties were hopelessly partisan.

In stepped the Virginia Supreme Court, which is tasked by the new law with drawing maps if the bipartisan committee is unable to do so. From lists submitted by each party, the court picked two consultants, or “special masters,” to jointly draw the maps that were released for public inspection last week.

In a recent editorial, this newspaper lamented the redistricting commission’s failure, but if the death of gerrymandering was the goal of voters in 2020, the Supreme Court’s consultants likely did a better job of killing it than the partisans on the citizen redistricting commission would have.

At a quick glance, the state House and Senate maps are a mixed bag for Isle of Wight.

Brewer, the popular incumbent who currently represents all of the county and got 65% of the IW vote against her Democratic opponent last month, would represent the county only partially if reelected under the new map. A Brewer victory in the new 84th, which includes a big chunk of Suffolk, would be anything but certain, as the district favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in 2016. A Democrat would be the odds-on favorite in that race.

Brewer would be a formidable state Senate candidate, but the new Senate District 17, which includes all of Isle of Wight, also leans Democratic, having favored Clinton over Trump by six percentage points. It’s easy to see a scenario in which Brewer, a rising star for Virginia Republicans, is out of the legislature entirely come the next election barring a change in residence.

On a positive note, putting parties aside, the new map would create a true Western Tidewater Senate district, which is long overdue from this scribe’s perspective. Isle of Wight has seen what it’s like to be a crumb in urban lawmakers’ districts. No knock against Tommy Norment, Louise Lucas and John Cosgrove, but lawmakers from metropolitan Hampton Roads and the Peninsula simply never will make Isle of Wight, Southampton, Franklin and rural Suffolk the priority they deserve to be.

The new Senate District 17 would cover all of Western Tidewater, plus Dinwiddie and Brunswick counties west of I-95 and part of Portsmouth. This region doesn’t have much clout with the Democratic majority in the state Senate currently, but District 17 could change that.

For Isle of Wight Republicans, the best shot at victory would be in the new House District 83, which covers the 70% of the county, including Smithfield and Carrollton, not in the 84th. The proposed District 83, which includes Southampton, Greensville, Brunswick, Sussex, Emporia and part of Dinwiddie to the west, was dead even between Clinton and Trump in 2016 and would be one of the dozen or so swing districts statewide that decides which party controls the House of Delegates.

Its incumbent? Sussex County’s Otto Waschmann, who just won a multimillion-dollar race over longtime Delegate Roslyn Tyler that was pivotal to the GOP’s surge to a House majority. A Tyler-Waschmann rematch in 2022, anyone?


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is