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Some Democrats sour on redistricting amendment. Northam says it's not the only solution.

Virginia Democrats, splintered on how to approach political redistricting in 2021, are up against a tight deadline to coalesce, and the number of proposals is only growing.

A proposed constitutional amendment that passed with bipartisan support last year is up for a second and final vote before the General Assembly, but some Democrats are distancing themselves from the measure and proposing alternate ways to secure a bipartisan process. House and Senate Republican leaders have said their caucuses support the amendment.

Even Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he supports the amendment, shared concerns about it in a recent interview and said it is not the only way to give Virginians non-gerrymandered maps.

The amendment would shift power over the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member commission of legislators and citizens. In the event of an impasse, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final say.

If the proposed amendment clears the legislature during this session, it would go to a November referendum in which Virginia voters would have the power to approve it or shut it down.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, has become a leading voice against the amendment, and particularly opposes the Supreme Court’s role. He says that court, controlled by conservatives, could yield gerrymandered maps that favor the GOP.

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chair of the legislature’s black caucus, also has long expressed concerns with the amendment, arguing that it doesn’t guarantee representation for minorities on the commission.

Meanwhile, Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Mamie Locke of Hampton, both in the chamber’s Democratic leadership, filed legislation to enact the amendment they say addresses those concerns. It calls for diversity in the commission, and gives the Supreme Court parameters within which to operate in the event that the maps come before it.

Asked in an interview if she supports a path forward that doesn’t include the constitutional amendment, Lucas said flatly, “No.”

Lawmakers in each chamber will have until Feb. 20 to make up their minds on the measure after House Democrats sought unsuccessfully to nix the deadline for considering constitutional amendments. Related legislation should be finalized by the last day of session in mid-March.

It’s all part of a strict redistricting timeline.

The counting of the population by the U.S. Census Bureau will take place April 1.

Virginia will get its results by the end of 2020, an expedited schedule to accommodate redistricting ahead of the elections for the House of Delegates in November 2021.

Absentee voting for state primaries could start as early as January 2021.

***

Levine describes the proposed constitutional amendment as “recipe for severe gerrymandering.”

He said all it would take for the maps to wind up in the hands of the state Supreme Court, controlled by Republicans, is two of the four GOP legislators on the redistricting commission parting with the rest of the membership.

Once in the hands of the Supreme Court, he believes no guidelines from the General Assembly would be able to trump its decision.

Levine said the amendment calls on the court to “establish” maps.

“The constitution trumps other law,” he said.

Northam shared concerns about the state Supreme Court’s purview.

“I’m not sure that’s the best way to go,” he said in a recent interview. “I mean, just look at the makeup of the Supreme Court, whether it be at the state level or the national level. I think not everybody would feel comfortable with that approach.”

Northam said unequivocally that if the amendment passes, he will support it.

“If it doesn’t, I will continue to advocate for nonpartisan redistricting and that will need to be a piece of legislation that I will pass,” he said. “So I’m committed to making sure that in Virginia, if I have anything to do with that process, it’s nonpartisan redistricting.”

Levine was among the lawmakers who voted for the proposed amendment last year. Asked about that vote, he said he went with the only measure available to his party at the time.

“It’s not like we had a choice of several delicious apples and we chose a rotten one. We had no choice and we were hungry, so we ate the rotten apple,” Levine said. “Now, with power, we can have a full apple orchard of the very best apples in the country. Why would we go back to that rotten apple?”

He said in an interview that he was in the process of retooling his redistricting proposals with the aid of experts from different states. Levine expects his new approach to be finalized Monday.

The crux of his plan, he said, is that the maps should yield representation in the General Assembly that mirrors the statewide popular vote. For example, he said that if 55% of voters statewide support one party, then roughly 55% of the seats in each chamber should belong to that party.

He said his method would call for the use of the past two statewide elections for lieutenant governor and attorney general as a guide.

“I chose the two where I felt people were least likely to know who’s running, purposely, as a party barometer. My goal is to get a generic party makeup,” Levine said. He excluded presidential and gubernatorial races because personality preferences, rather than party, influence voter choice in those races.

“People have unique views on Trump and Hillary Clinton,” he said. “That wasn’t my goal.”

***

In the Senate, Lucas said she was optimistic most concerns with the amendment would be quelled by the legislation she filed.

One bill specifies guidelines for how maps will be drawn that calls for “contiguity, compactness, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, and respect for existing communities of interest,” and bans political party considerations. The other calls on the state Supreme Court to abide by those parameters if the decision is left to the court.

Her bills would go into effect if voters approve the constitutional amendment.

“I’m very hopeful that this bill is going to pass because for the longest time, people have been interested in having some bipartisan participation with redistricting,” she said. She rebuffed concerns that the Supreme Court could ignore those parameters.

“At the end of the day, everybody has got to abide by the law. That’s what it is,” Lucas said. “Even the Supreme Court has to follow the laws that are written by the legislators.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed that view.

McClellan filed her own bill stipulating guidelines for how to draw the redistricting maps, whether it’s done through the constitutional amendment or by the legislature.

The bill calls for maps that protect the rights of racial and language minorities, takes into account municipal boundaries and communities, and calls for racial and ethnic fairness. No political data can be used to create the maps.

She believes that legislation setting clear criteria — similar to the federal Voting Rights Act — will hold the Supreme Court to standards that will yield fairness for voters. If the amendment doesn’t pass, then lawmakers have parameters with which to work.

Still, McClellan would prefer it happen through the amendment to empower people outside the legislature to have the final say. Without it, the constitution requires the legislature to have the final approval, and any group or expert tasked with creating the maps would simply have an advisory role.

“At the end of the day, we would have to vote for the lines,” she said, arguing that a bill giving final say to a commission would bind future legislatures unconstitutionally. “You can’t bind the General Assembly.”


BOB BROWN/Times-Dispatch  

Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton (left), and Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, members of the Democratic leadership, are trying to address concerns with the proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting.


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Richmond's St. Paul's Episcopal Church — once known as 'Cathedral of the Confederacy' — welcomes first openly gay rector

The artwork that hangs on the walls of the Rev. Charles Dupree’s office at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church features images with soft, muted colors that appear to be both photographs and watercolor paintings. Dupree created the pieces using an old-fashioned process called gum bichromate, whereby artists apply multiple layers of color to photo negatives in a darkroom.

Creativity is the brush that paints Dupree’s life through both art and music. As he eases into his new role as rector of the downtown Richmond church, it’s that imagination that moves him, inspires him and helps him connect God and ancient beloved scriptures to today’s community of believers.

Dupree, the church’s first openly gay rector, took the helm in August after most recently spending well over a decade in Bloomington, Ind. He replaced the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, who left St. Paul’s in 2017.

The church is holding a celebration of new ministry liturgy to officially welcome and introduce Dupree at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Call it a commitment ceremony, both he to his congregation and them to him, Dupree said last week in the quiet of his office, away from the hectic scene outside as the start of the General Assembly session meant a busy Capitol Square one block away.

Dupree, 50, spoke about his desire to nurture and grow his new church family in ways that involve making the church relevant to people’s lives. After all, it’s within that environment that he felt his calling to ministry, having experienced as a younger man what he called a “really engaging, creative Episcopal Church.”

“Relevancy is incredibly important,” said Dupree, who was born into a tobacco-farming family in North Carolina and earned an art degree before turning to seminary. Too often today, church is seen and experienced as a “static, boring relic,” though it “can be a really creative, imaginative, exciting space.”

Progressive by nature, he said, the Episcopal faith offers opportunities for creative theological expression in all facets; beautiful music, enlightened preaching, prayers that resonate in modern times and with all people.

In Richmond, he’s found a place where he can stretch his leadership in new and innovative ways and it’s that spirit that led St. Paul’s search committee to choose him, said committee member Mark Gordon.

The committee visited Bloomington while Dupree was working there, and Gordon said that congregation very much reflected St. Paul’s.

Gordon described Dupree as “highly intuitive” and “perceptive,” but also quick-witted and creative. But what impressed the committee most was Dupree’s unique ability to lead a diverse congregation — with all of the varying needs among just that group — while also successfully guiding outreach efforts to reach underserved groups, namely youth and families, and the LGBTQ community.

“We were looking for someone who knew how to grow a sense of community,” he said, and simultaneously foster a sense of inclusion. That Dupree is gay “is a nonissue for us,” Gordon said, and “a nonissue for our congregation.”

Dupree said he’s hoping to be a resource — a model, even — for what an inclusive community looks like in Richmond. One way to do that, he said, is by showing that St. Paul’s not only allows, but celebrates, theological exploration; that within its sanctuary there’s a safe, quiet space for individuals from any walk of life to talk with God; that individuals can ask life’s questions and struggle with them and talk about them openly — and maybe never find the answers.

But that’s OK.

“God is big enough for all of us,” Dupree said.


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In Ettrick, affordable homes are planned for site of empty elementary school annex

After the Ettrick Elementary School Annex closed its doors to students decades ago, the building was reused as county storage space.

In the coming weeks, that building on Dupuy Road will be demolished as the Maggie Walker Land Trust pursues another use for the 5 acres where the annex rests. The land trust is planning to redevelop the site into affordable single-family homes and perhaps a community garden.

“We are not trying to maximize price here because we want these to be affordable to residents of this community,” Erica Sims, CEO of the Maggie Walker Land Trust, said last week.

Land trust and county officials said specifics of the plan — such as how many homes could be built and what the income qualifications would be for homebuyers — still need to be worked out.

Laura Lafayette, the chairwoman of the land trust, stressed that specifics about the number of homes that could be built will be hammered out through conversations with the community.

“We want to build a product where the people who have called Ettrick home for many, many years, A. could afford, and B. would be proud of,” Lafayette said.

Former Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick said at a November work session that the county had looked at what it would take to renovate the old annex, but found that it had deteriorated so much that it could cost too much to fix up.

Chesterfield County officials voted to donate the annex property to the land trust after a December public hearing. The county last year picked the nonprofit trust to act as the county’s land bank that would acquire underused, vacant and surplus properties with an eye toward getting them back on the tax rolls.

Tina McCray, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Ettrick, told supervisors at the December hearing that the community had several meetings about the fate of the annex property.

“Most of the citizens have agreed that this is the best opportunity for our community, and we look forward to having this opportunity to have more homeownership developed in our community,” McCray said.

The annex building rests in an area where surrounding homes rest on lots covering more than an acre, said Sims, adding that could mean perhaps five homes might be built on the annex property.

“We don’t want to make the final decision,” Sims said of the number of homes that would be built on the acreage. “We want this to be a conversation with the community.”

The red-brick building was a school until 1988, when students were transferred to a newly expanded Ettrick Elementary School on Chesterfield Avenue, according to an announcement published that year in The Richmond News Leader. The afternoon newspaper reported in a 1989 article that the school had been used by students in kindergarten through the second grade, and that the county started using it as storage space after the pupils moved to their new school.

Over the years, the Chesterfield school system has given away outdated textbooks to the community at the annex.

Spare furniture for the school system has also been housed there over the years, said Daniel Cohen, Chesterfield’s director of community enhancement.

The land trust plans to apply for a zoning change as part of its efforts to develop the annex site. The trust, which also works to create affordable housing in Richmond, has bought and renovated several homes in Chesterfield over the past year. While it has been renovating Chesterfield homes here and there, Cohen noted that the annex project marks the first time the trust will be taking over a spare piece of land and redeveloping it.

“It’s going to be the example that everyone is going to point to in terms of the success of this relationship,” Cohen said, “of having this land bank in the county.”


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Entertainment
Byrd Theatre manager fired; will the beloved Carytown theater become a first-run movie house?

Changes are afoot at the Byrd Theatre, Richmond’s beloved historic movie palace in Carytown.

Todd Schall-Vess, the institution’s longtime manager, was fired in November. Two board members stepped down over the way it was handled.

Now people are wondering: What’s going to happen to the Byrd?

Schall-Vess became known as the face of the theater over his 21 years there — he introduced movies, hosted special events and did everything it took to keep the roof from caving in.

Although the Byrd Theatre Foundation board said it cannot comment on a personnel matter, others said there was a personality issue with Schall-Vess. He can be gruff and opinionated.

Sharon Kelley, who had been on the board for four years, stepped down in the fall because she didn’t agree with the direction the board was taking, which led to the firing of Schall-Vess, she said.

“Todd will tell you what’s wrong with an idea, why it’s not in the best interest of the theater, and he won’t wait for you to leave the room to do it. That can be embarrassing for some people,” Kelley said.

Schall-Vess was not offered severance by the foundation, which now manages and operates the Byrd.

“After 21 years of 365-day-a-year dedication, this was not the way to do it,” Schall-Vess said. “One of the things that I’ve struggled with is that people ask, ‘Should we no longer support the Byrd?’ I feel that conceptually the Byrd is still something worthy of support. However, if the people who are currently in charge are capable of treating someone the way they’ve treated me, that is cause for concern.”

Dave H. Martin, a volunteer at the Byrd who has served on the board, said the decision to terminate Schall-Vess was something the board had been considering for many years.

“It’s always been an adversarial relationship with Todd,” Martin said. “He’s done very good things for the Byrd, but there were challenges. He was not always on board with the foundation’s authority. He was not enthusiastic about the changes we made, when we tried to modernize, like upgrading to credit cards for tickets, which was enthusiastically received [by the public].

“He’s a great personality and a great speaker, but I don’t think he got along with a lot of people, including the board, volunteers and donors. There are many theatergoers who had crossed with him before.”

Schall-Vess has been described by some as a prickly personality who created a hostile work environment. But others say he was 100% devoted to the Byrd, working day and night to keep the movie palace operating during challenging times.

Bob Ulrich, a board member for the past three years, decided to step down because of how the firing was handled.

“Regardless of what you think about Todd, you can fire anybody you want to,” Ulrich said. “But it’s the wrong thing to do after 21 years. He should have been offered severance.”

***

With Schall-Vess’ firing, many Richmonders are wondering about the Byrd’s future.

For years, the Byrd has been a second-run movie theater, offering movies at affordable prices.

The allure of the Byrd, for many, is the experience of going to a grand movie palace, with the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the singalong and the majestic curtain going up before the feature film.

Schall-Vess and the board members who have stepped down believe the board is making a play to become more of an “art house” movie theater.

Recently, the Byrd has been running a first-run film: Adam Sandler’s “Uncut Gems.” But that’s a rarity.

“We do not plan to become a first-run movie theater,” said Lisa Rogerson, marketing director for the Byrd. “‘Uncut Gems’ was a good fit. It came from a smaller production house. We took advantage of it. It brought new people to the theater. But it’s not sustainable for us to be a first-run theater.”

As a first-run movie theater, “we would be expected to run the film in all available time slots and that doesn’t provide us the diversity of programming we know our community wants,” Rogerson said. “It is one part of our content mix, not all.”

“We have the unique ability to bring in an ‘artsy’ film without having to commit to this exclusively,” Ted Haynes, president of the board, said via an emailed statement. “That’s part of what we think makes us successful, our varied programming. Classics, sub-run, art-house, quirky and the occasional first-run.”

***

Starting in 2016, the programming committee began introducing more variety to the Byrd’s offerings, besides only sub-run, or second-run, movies. The Byrd now shows big screen classics, family films and marathons.

That’s the vision the Byrd aims to continue, said Rogerson, adding, “We are not changing our programming strategy.”

The programming committee is made up of board members and volunteers. Schall-Vess was part of the committee, but not the sole member.

“The programming is not going to suffer from his loss,” Martin said.

But Schall-Vess was the booker for the Byrd, meaning he selected the second-run movies he thought would be a good fit for the Byrd’s audience. The Byrd is now working with a booking agency.

“Todd was doing the job of the film buyer, the general manager and every other odd and end. He knows the theater inside and out. They’ve lost the intricacies and the know-how that he had, like raising and lowering the chandelier for cleaning,” Kelley said.

***

Since purchasing the Byrd in 2007, the nonprofit Byrd Theatre Foundation has aimed to restore and upgrade the theater.

The foundation has raised $1.5 million to replace the roof and heating and cooling systems, invest in digital projection and conduct more necessary behind-the-scenes upgrades.

In 2016, the theater raised ticket prices from $1.99 to between $4 and $6 for second-run new releases and repertory films such as classic films or animation classics.

In 2017, the foundation spent $140,000 to add 234 much-needed new seats to the main section of the theater. But the theater has 1,200 seats and will need to replace most of the rest of them, as well as pay for other upgrades and general upkeep of the opulent 1928 movie house.

Some wonder about the direction the foundation is taking and whether the volunteer board has the expertise to steer the Byrd into the future and keep it operational.

Starting in 2007, the Byrd operated as two separate entities: as 1928 Ltd., which ran the daily operations of the theater, and the Byrd Theatre Foundation board, which was focused on fundraising.

In October, the board voted to dissolve 1928 Ltd., which employed Schall-Vess.

Rogerson said the decision was made so the Byrd could be run more smoothly. Schall-Vess and his supporters said the decision was made to pave the way for his termination.

“There are only a few movie palaces [like the Byrd] in their original condition. That is a really special thing. In my view, you don’t go making radical changes to something as special as that; you make incremental changes,” Ulrich said.

“The theater is modernizing. It’s a difficult industry. We have to evolve and grow. We want to be a theater that’s open, welcoming, kinder and gentler. Sometimes, you have to look at your personnel and make adjustments,” Martin said.

As for his next job, Schall-Vess said, “I truthfully have no idea. It’s about reimagining what the rest of my life will look like.”