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House panel puts off vote on redistricting amendment as Northam considers options

Few issues have divided the new Democratic majority as much as redistricting reform, and after weeks of failed coalescing, a looming deadline has burst those tensions into the open.

Two alternative approaches to redrawing legislative and congressional districts are resting precariously before the legislature, which has about a week to finish its work before adjourning March 7. The debate was re-energized Thursday evening, when the Northam administration made clear it was ready to intervene in the process to secure passage of redistricting reform.

On Friday, the effort led to confusion at the Capitol and questions about which alternative Northam supports. Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, said the panel would not take up a proposed constitutional amendment on Friday during its last regularly scheduled meeting of the session.

Lindsey said publicly that the governor planned to deliver a new alternative measure over the weekend through the Senate — a statement the Northam administration quickly rejected. Northam is still weighing his options, a spokeswoman said.

“He’s not doing that. I don’t know how that got there, but he’s not sending down a bill,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic caucus and a supporter of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Lindsey said a vote on the issue would be pushed back to a special meeting of the elections panel on Monday. He said the delay was a courtesy to Northam, who requested the weekend to mull the issue.

The final battle on redistricting will almost certainly be fought in the House. There, vocal supporters of the constitutional amendment — bolstered by the support of Republicans now in the minority — argue they have the votes to prevail.

Challenging that effort is House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. She has stood with a broad swath of the African American delegates in the House in support of an alternative measure sponsored by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News.

Both the amendment and Price’s House Bill 1256 would establish a 16-member bipartisan commission to draw new districts. Price’s bill would guarantee racial diversity among map-drawers but does not end broad legislative oversight over the process.

The proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 18, sponsored by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, passed the Senate on Feb. 11 on a 38-2 vote. A House version of the proposed amendment died when Filler-Corn declined to bring it up for a vote by the Feb. 20 deadline for each chamber to act on its proposed constitutional amendments.

The House can still take up the Senate resolution, though movement on that measure has been slow.

Friday’s delay angered Democrats in both chambers who support the amendment.

“Just let the legislation move through the process and let people vote. Either you vote legislation up or down, up or down. You know, don’t hold legislation,” Locke said.

“What’s the concern of letting it go through the process? That bothers me.”

Filler-Corn did not respond to a request for comment through a spokesman.

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

Most members of the black caucus in the House reject that approach, arguing that it does not guarantee that people of color will have proportional membership on the commission that would draw the maps. Like Northam, they also argue that the court’s final say could expose Democrats to judicial politicking.

Price has called these “fatal flaws.”

The proposed constitutional amendment passed the legislature by wide margins in 2019. In order to become part of the constitution, it must clear the legislature again this year without changes and then win voters’ approval in a statewide referendum in November.

Price’s bill would set up a similar redistricting process involving a 16-member commission and would guarantee minority representation on the panel without amending the constitution. The commission would have no constitutional powers; its plans would need legislative support and the governor’s signature.

Her bill, which cleared the House on Feb. 11 on a 54-45 vote, is still moving through Senate panels and has not been brought to the floor. The Senate Finance Committee is likely to hear it on Tuesday.

“The Senate position hasn’t changed,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on whether Senate Democrats might entertain Price’s approach if it gets to the floor.

Price did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the deadline pressure from the pending March 7 adjournment, Democrats are up against political pressure to deliver on the issue, given that for years, candidates up and down the ballot have run on promises to end partisan and racial gerrymandering in Virginia.

“I will stop the gerrymandering,” Northam pledged during a July 2017 gubernatorial debate with Republican Ed Gillespie in Hot Springs.

“And I will not sign a map unless it is drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, who sponsored the resolution on the constitutional amendment that died in the House, rejected the idea of new Northam-backed legislation on the issue, calling for a vote on the amendment, which he says will succeed.

“We’ve been hashing out commissions, legislatively and constitutionally, for a couple years here. We have gone through the grinder, two years in a row, on amendments and legislative statutes,” VanValkenburg said.

“What makes anybody think that a proposal that drops out of the air at the last minute is going to all of a sudden change the views of 140 legislators who have been debating this issue for two years? Let’s just vote on Monday.”


Entertainment
'We don’t want to be Richmond’s best-kept secret anymore,' Virginia War Memorial hosts grand opening this Saturday for $25 million expansion

On Saturday, the Virginia War Memorial will open its $25 million, 28,000-square-foot expansion to the public.

The project has added a new Shrine of Memory, which honors Virginians lost in the war on terrorism, as well as the C. Kenneth Wright Pavilion, a 25,000-square-foot expansion that includes a new grand lobby, an exhibit hall, an art gallery, a research library and a new underground parking lot.

“We don’t want to be one of Richmond’s best-kept secrets anymore,” said Clay Mountcastle, director of the memorial. “Our greatest challenge is letting people know who we are and what we do.”

Opened to the public in 1956, the original Virginia War Memorial was built to honor the nearly 10,000 Virginians who lost their lives during World War II.

The Virginia War Memorial was built overlooking the James River in a style suggestive of a Greek temple with an open-air pavilion draped with huge sheets of glass on which the names of the dead could be listed. The Shrine of Memory included, as it does today, a 22-foot tall statue of a female figure in grief.

In 1981, the Shrine of Memory was expanded to include the names of Virginians killed in action during the Vietnam War. In 1996, the names of those who died in the Persian Gulf War were added.

In 2010, the memorial added the Galanti Education Center.

“Education is one of the most important things we do here,” said Jeb Hockman, a spokesman for the memorial. “There’s not much point in having a name on a wall if you don’t know [why it’s there].”

But as the years passed, the conflicts and the names of the dead increased.

In 2017, ground was broken for the $25 million expansion and an additional Shrine of Memory.

Located across from the old Shrine of Memory, the new one has been built in the same open-air pavilion style with the names of the lost inscribed on glass. It has 175 names inscribed with room for more. Staff Sgt. Ian McLaughlin, 29, of Newport News, who was killed in Afghanistan on Jan. 11, is the most recent name added.

Together, the two shrines honor nearly 12,000 people.

“To give honor to those names, you have to create a living memorial,” Mountcastle said.

The 28,000-square-foot expansion houses a 350-seat auditorium and lecture hall, the Virginia Medal of Honor Gallery, an exhibit hall with rotating exhibits, a veterans’ art gallery and a long-distance learning studio.

“Military Photography: An Added Dimension” is currently on view displaying immersive 3D photographs from the Civil War through the Iraq conflicts. Photographs by Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer Dean Hoffmeyer from a deadly attack in Iraq in 2004 are featured in the exhibit.

The new underground parking garage has increased the facility’s parking from 40 spots to 168.

The majority of the funding was provided by the commonwealth of Virginia, with $5 million raised from private donors.


Entertainment
'We just got lucky': Richmond leap day babies and wedding couples celebrate a day that comes once every 4 years

It’s leap year babies and anniversaries season, which comes once every four years. The chances of being born on Feb. 29 are 1 in 1,461, according to the BBC, and in 2017 there were about 187,000 in the U.S. Computers frequently don’t have a “29” option to choose from for birth dates. Others have rare wedding anniversaries that come around every four years.

“I think it’s made me always like being different,” said 56-year-old leapling Clover Harris. “In eight years, I’ll be sweet 16.”

Read more of their stories.

Makeya Perkinson

North Chesterfield

Every four years, Makeya Perkinson’s sons call her their “little sister.” They’re 9 and 14 years old, and Makeya is rounding the 8-year mark — even though her license states she’s 32.

Her youngest is just starting to comprehend the concept behind the phenomenon.

“He used to be very angry when people would say, ‘You’re 7 years old’ and he’d say, ‘She’s not 7!’ ” the North Chesterfield resident said. “Now he’s like, ‘I understand why they say you’re 7, because your birthday only came seven times.’”

In the non-leap year years, Perkinson feels like she’s stealing someone else’s birthday. She celebrates March 1 on non-leap years and combines with her aunt, whose birthday is that same day.

Leap year or not, there’s almost always seafood involved. She doesn’t go as far as squid, but mussels are the go-to, and the more oysters, the better.

Her 12th birthday, or 4th in leap years, might as well have been seafood-themed, with the amount of crab legs and homemade shrimp gumbo available. On leap years, her mother goes out of her way to make sure that Perkinson knows it’s her day.

“Now if it was any other day, eh. But on my birthday, she makes sure she comes through all the time,” Perkinson said. “She never fails me.”

Last minute, her plans to hit Las Vegas for the weekend fell through. She doesn’t mind, though. Vegas will always be there.

And who knows? Maybe by the time she turns 9, she’ll have hit Jamaica and Egypt, too.

Kelly and Steve Bolvari

Henrico

The priest wasn’t happy they wanted to get married in six months. In the Catholic Church, engaged couples usually take a year of classes, some for two, in a preparation ceremony called “Pre-Cana.” But when they approached their priest in 1992, Kelly and Steve Bolvari had already been engaged for four years and dating for five.

Eventually, the priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Henrico County gave in on the condition that they take a condensed form of classes, which Kelly jokingly called “drive-thru courses.” The catch: The only date that worked for all parties was Feb. 29.

“I wrote it down as ‘29/92.’ I just loved the numbers,” Kelly said. “That was it. It wasn’t like we planned it.”

They’re still told by family members that their wedding was the best one they’ve been to, which they joke might be due to the fact that it was an open bar and when the bartender left her post, a partygoer began giving out giant liquor pours.

Because of their leap year anniversary, it took the couple 28 years of marriage to reach the seven-year itch, a term coined in the 1950s referring to how couples hit a relationship slump at the seven-year mark.

But three kids later, Kelly and Steve throw their heads back in laughter at the idea of not being in it for the long haul. It’s their anniversary, too, Steve said.

“My bottom line is we just got lucky. There’s no science to it,” Kelly said. “I feel the same way about having kids. We just got lucky.”

On Saturday, Kelly will be cheering on her daughter at a swim meet while Steve takes his sons to GalaxyCon, a cosplay convention — the family thrives on anything science fiction.

If schedules align and they end up altogether at the dinner table, it’ll be enough. If not, that’s OK, too. They have over 28 more years to celebrate.

Clover Harris

Richmond

When Clover Harris came back to Richmond after 15 years in Kazakhstan and five in Turkey, River of Life Community Church on Woodman Road had a congregation of 20. Her husband became pastor of the church, and they told the church they wanted it to be a safe space for people of different cultures, regardless of religion.

On Tuesday nights, she offers free beginner and advanced English as a second language courses at the church for 50 to 75 people, a majority of whom she says are from Afghanistan. Lately, they’ve had more Arabic and Spanish speakers, in addition to a young Turkish woman.

Most weeks, students bring in food from their home country, and on Saturday, they’ll continue the trend at Harris’ birthday party. It was supposed to be a secret, but her husband isn’t good with those, she said with a chuckle. She’ll be turning 14 years old — 56 if you want to be technical.

“I just love our people. They’re my life, you know? They’re family,” Harris said. “I look so forward to just having them all together. We’re going to have Iraqi food and all these different types of foods. That’s what I love.”

It was her Turkish neighbors who brought her and her husband into their homes, helped pay their bills and interpreted a language for them that they didn’t know. That’s what she wanted to bring to Richmond. People who need help are everywhere, she added.

In Istanbul, she opened an international church, where she frequently received refugees fleeing persecution, including a Yazidi family before the 2014 genocide in Iraq. Harris visited them in Germany, where they now reside, in 2015.

“The fear of what they felt was very overpowering and has just given us such a compassion for people that are in those kinds of situations,” Harris said. “This is just who we are; we love people from all over, and we want to welcome them.”


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Virginia
Klobuchar vows 'decency check' in Virginia campaign kickoff

FALLS CHURCH — Sen. Amy Klobuchar launched her march to the Super Tuesday presidential primary in Virginia by promising “to lead with decency” and repudiating what she termed President Donald Trump’s divisive legacy.

Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat serving her third term in the Senate, drew a huge ovation when she introduced Cindy Vindman, sister-in-law of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whom Trump fired from the National Security Council staff this month after he testified in the House impeachment inquiry.

“I think we all know, of any state, Virginia gets this — the respect for our military, the respect for our federal employees, this idea that people devote themselves to our country regardless of party,” she said.

Klobuchar made Trump’s character — contrasted with her personal story as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner — central to her election bid.

“It is an economic check for many people, but it is more than that. ... It is also a decency check,” she told a roaring crowd of 1,300 people packed into the historic State Theatre for a midday campaign rally in this small Northern Virginia city between Arlington and Fairfax counties.

In a 41-minute speech aimed at moderate voters of both parties, Klobuchar accused Trump of failing the people who elected him in 2016 and promised to reach beyond the Democratic Party base to include Republicans disenchanted with the president.

“I don’t want us to shut out those voters,” she said. “I want us to bring them with us.”

Virginia, with 124 delegates at stake, is one of 14 states going to the polls on Super Tuesday.

Klobuchar’s campaign in Virginia will continue on Saturday with a 12:15 p.m. stop in Richmond at the Altria Theater. That begins a marathon Saturday for Klobuchar, who is scheduled to campaign in Portland, Maine, later that afternoon before finishing with a nighttime rally in Charlotte, N.C.

Her husband, John Blessler, and daughter, Abigail, campaigned in Henrico County at a house party on Thursday night.

A former resident of Arlington County, Klobuchar said her daughter had graduated from Washington-Lee High School, only to be corrected by members of the crowd that the School Board had changed the school’s name to Washington-Liberty to remove the name of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. (That is the high school where one of her Democratic rivals, Pete Buttigieg, campaigned on Sunday.)

She mentioned two Senator Warners from Virginia — former Sen. John Warner, a Republican with whom she had worked on unsuccessful legislation to address climate change, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a close friend whom she applauded for his work as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to unearth evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Klobuchar also praised Virginia’s emergence as a Democratic “blue” state with elections that switched control of the party’s congressional delegation in 2018 and both chambers of the General Assembly in November. Her backers include Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the first woman to lead the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009.

“It’s just such a success story in your state,” she said.

Klobuchar promised “an optimistic economic agenda for the people of this country.” Leading that agenda is health care, although she distinguished her goal from the “Medicare for All” pledge of Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders. “I am someone that believes we should build on the Affordable Care Act and not blow it up,” she said.

She emphasized investments in public education and higher education. But instead of “free college for all,” as Sanders advocates, she proposed to help people with the training and support to fill jobs in demand, whether as health care workers or electricians. She also promised that an initial step “in the first 100 seconds to make all of this work is to fire Betsy DeVos,” education secretary under Trump.

Klobuchar also talked about returning the U.S. to the negotiating table with foreign nations — from Russia to Iran — and “instead of standing with tyrants, stand with our allies.”

“I know I’m in Virginia when people are cheering this much for foreign policy,” she joked.

Klobuchar said the country needs to put politics aside in dealing with the health threat of the coronavirus as it spreads beyond China. She called on Trump to give full support to public health research.

“Like Northern Virginia, I believe in science!” she said to raucous cheers.

A poll released Friday by the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University had Klobuchar at 5% in Virginia, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden; Sanders, a senator from Vermont; former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg; Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Rosemary Sump won’t be able to vote on Tuesday because she lives in Maryland, which will hold its Democratic primary on April 28. But Sump traveled from her home in Bethesda to see an old friend in action.

“Amy is exactly who you see,” said Sump, a Minnesota native who worked with Klobuchar at a Minneapolis law firm almost 30 years ago.

“She touts being efficient — she is and more,” she said. “The girl gets stuff done.”


Local
Tricycle Urban Ag, Church Hill-based nonprofit, transferring property, ceasing operations

A leading nonprofit for community gardening and urban agriculture in Richmond is ceasing operations.

Tricycle Urban Ag, a Church Hill-based nonprofit formerly known as Tricycle Gardens, announced Thursday that it had transferred control of its properties and other assets to the Enrichmond Foundation, another local nonprofit. Tricycle will vacate its office at 2314 Jefferson Ave. by the end of April.

“All that we have cultivated will continue to grow through Enrichmond and the Certified Urban Agriculturalists that are farming in our community,” said Sally Schwitters, the nonprofit’s executive director for the past seven years, in a release.

For more than a decade, the nonprofit spearheaded the creation of more than a dozen community gardens and urban farms around the city with a goal of increasing healthy food access. Supporters credit its work with reinvigorating vacant land in Church Hill, the East End and Manchester. Thousands of volunteers enlisted to help.

More recently, Tricycle has led an urban agriculture certification program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It taught farming and business management to budding entrepreneurs, spurring small-business growth. Forty-five people completed the program.

All five of its full-time staff members, including Schwitters, are out of jobs at the end of this month, though she said she would continue to work with the board through the transition.

In an interview, Schwitters and board chairman Hunter Hopcroft attributed the nonprofit’s financial woes to expenses stemming from the certification program. The nonprofit had counted on the USDA reimbursing the expenses, which tallied “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Hopcroft said.

A USDA spokesperson said Tricycle had been “paid out in full” under its written agreements with the federal department and no money was currently due to the nonprofit. The federal agency paid the nonprofit $200,000 for leading the program, the spokesperson said. Negotiations were underway for a new agreement, but those ceased earlier this month when Tricycle informed the USDA it was shutting down.

With money from small donors and corporate partners, the nonprofit’s assets totaled more than $500,000 as recently as the end of 2016. But over the next three years, it drew down its reserves to cover the certification program’s expenses, which exceeded the money it received from the USDA, Schwitters said.

“What we found as an organization was the verbal commitment and interest of the individuals [at the USDA] we were working with remained strong, but the process tied things up,” she said. “As we went through that process, we went through our reserves to manage those delays. It carried on to the point that we felt it was not sustainable and we needed to make significant and strategic changes as a result.”

A review of Tricycle’s financial reports show its expenses exceeded its revenues in 2017 and 2018. Its net assets dropped to $438,000 at the end of 2017 and $346,000 by the end of 2018, according to the two most recent Form 990s it filed with the IRS.

In those two years, its payroll grew from about $413,500 to $447,500. Schwitters’ compensation dropped from about $92,000 to $85,000 in the span.

Last week, Tricycle’s 13-person board authorized the transfer of its urban farm, garden and orchard properties to the nonprofit Enrichmond.

Two graduates of Tricycle’s fellowship program will partner with Enrichmond to continue tending to the urban farm in Manchester at 907 Bainbridge St., according to a release. Schwitters and Hopcroft said they are lining up other groups to take on pieces of its work.

“Sometimes when an end comes, you want to put blame somewhere and let the focus be on that. Through the work and even these experiences that we’ve gone through, I think a lot has been learned about urban agriculture, the positive aspects of it and the struggles of it,” Schwitters said.

Enrichmond’s executive director, John Sydnor, said his organization’s aim is to preserve Tricycle’s work.

“It’s incredibly important to not forget how much they’ve been part of moving that ball of urban agriculture forward,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that place that they’ve moved it to is held firm and protected.”