The incoming leader of a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates said Thursday she will back nonpartisan political redistricting in an impending General Assembly session that is crucial to preventing partisan gerrymandering after the census is completed next year.
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, currently chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told a meeting of journalists at the Virginia Press Association that she is “not scared of losing our majority” by sending a constitutional amendment to voters next fall that would move political redistricting from the legislature to an independent commission.
Herring said she voted for the proposed constitutional amendment this year and “I’m likely to vote for it again,” even though Democrats now control both chambers of the General Assembly after legislative elections last month.
“I think we need to have nonpartisan redistricting here in Virginia,” she said in a luncheon speech at the association’s annual VPA Day in the Capital at its offices in Glen Allen.
Legislators who convene in Richmond in January will take their second look at the proposed constitutional amendment that would shift power over the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member commission of legislators and citizens.
The legislature approved the proposed amendment this year. It would have to clear the General Assembly again in 2020 in order to go on the ballot in a state referendum that November. If voters then approve the referendum, the panel will be in place to draw new congressional and legislative districts in 2021.
Gov. Ralph Northam and incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, say they would support the amendment in the new session, but incoming Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, has not gone as far.
Herring, 50, is the first woman and African American legislator to be elected as House majority leader. She said she has a close relationship with Filler-Corn, who will be the first woman and first Jewish House speaker.
Their gender — “our whole life,” she said, laughing — will bring a fresh perspective to leadership roles that have been held exclusively by white men in the chamber’s 400 year history.
Herring’s career as a politician and lawyer is rooted in personal hardship. Born in the Dominican Republic, Herring settled in Northern Virginia with her family after her father was assigned by the U.S. Army to the State Department. After her parents divorced, she and her mother fell into poverty, living temporarily in a motel and then homeless shelter until a landlord in Alexandria allowed them to rent an apartment without a security deposit.
After graduating from West Springfield High School, she attended George Mason University in Fairfax because of a program that allows students from underprivileged backgrounds to become the first members of their families to attend college.
“That is the turning point of my life,” she said, citing the bachelor’s degree in economics she earned at George Mason and her law degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Herring emphasized her economic background as a former telecommunications lawyer to demonstrate her commitment to issues beyond social policies that are important to her and fellow House Democrats.
She said her priorities “are not just social policy but also economic policy.”
Herring sought to reassure the public that the new Democratic majority would not make hasty changes in fiscal policy, including revising the tax reform package adopted this year or shortchanging the state’s revenue reserve funds.
“We have to make sure we are financially stable. ... We are aware that we have to be conscious about spending,” she said.
However, Herring said she and other Democrats already have made clear they will seek to lift barriers to voting — she introduced the first bill of the session to clear away obstacles to early voting. She expects legislation to protect women’s right to privacy in making health care decisions, such as abortion.
She also expects Democrats to file bills to promote “green energy” initiatives that she said would promote “a healthy environment while the same time creating jobs in Virginia.”
Herring dodged a question about Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent public statement that he does not foresee the repeal of Virginia’s right-to-work law forbidding compulsory union membership in unionized workplaces.
“We are pro-labor,” she said earlier. “We want to make sure we’re a strong state not only for business but also for labor.”
She expects Democrats to introduce the same legislation that Northam sought in a special session in July on firearm restrictions in the aftermath of a mass shooting that killed 12 people in Virginia Beach on May 31, such as universal background checks and restoring the state law that limited purchases to one handgun a month.
Herring, who will head the House Courts of Justice Committee, did not predict the outcome of legislation to outlaw and potentially confiscate assault-style rifles but promised a thorough discussion of the state’s policy options. However, she added, “We should not allow something unconstitutional to come out of that committee.”
The surge in proclamations by mostly rural localities that they will become “Second Amendment sanctuary cities” in anticipation of stricter gun laws is “a little shocking,” she said.
Herring reminded Republicans that “we don’t have sanctuary cities here in Virginia,” despite GOP accusations that Democrats favored the creation of sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants. However, she warned elected sheriffs who have embraced the concept of “Second Amendment sanctuary cities” that their localities could lose funding if they refuse to enforce state laws.
“They should tread lightly and carefully on that,” she said.
Herring expects debate and potential action on criminal justice reform, especially for juvenile offenders, as well as decriminalization of marijuana.
She also promised diversity in geographic representation — as well as by race and gender — in a House dominated by legislators, like her, who live in Northern Virginia. Leaders from the region will occupy the top leadership positions, as well as the chairmanship of the House Appropriations and Finance committees.
“I think we would be politically unwise to ignore any region,” Herring said.