Growing Loudoun outpaces its political representation in Richmond – Richmond Times-Dispatch

BRAMBLETON – Del. Suhas Subramanyam stands at a street corner in this teeming suburban community at the cusp of three of the most politically underrepresented House of Delegates districts in Virginia, based on the constitutional standard of “one person, one vote.”

The two-term Democrat represents what was the 87th House District before the Virginia Supreme Court approved new legislative maps in late December to correct imbalances between population and political representation that reach their most extreme here in eastern Loudoun County.

Stretching from the Potomac River through one of the fastest growing counties in the United States to a semi-rural corner of Prince William County, the old district contained more than 130,000 residents in 2020, almost 44,000 more than the ideal for equal political representation under the U.S. and Virginia constitutions. No other House District had more people.

“It’s almost the size of a Senate district in and of itself. … It certainly shouldn’t be just one delegate district,” Subramanyam said.

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But Subramanyam could continue to represent the old district – which no longer exists under the court-approved map – for almost two more years, unless a federal judge in Richmond allows a lawsuit to proceed to force House elections in November under new district lines.

“Never happened before in the history of Virginia,” said Paul Goldman, an activist and former state Democratic Party chairman who filed the legal challenge nine months ago but has faced political resistance and legal opposition to requiring House elections this year.

“We have a legislature elected to districts that no longer exist,” Goldman said.

Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst in Richmond, said, “I think Goldman is absolutely on target with the substance of his argument.”

Under the Supreme Court ruling in December, Holsworth said, “The lines start now.”

Attorney General Jason Miyares disagrees. The new attorney general, a Republican, opposes Goldman in U.S. District Court, arguing that he hasn’t suffered a harm giving him standing to sue. Miyares says Virginia is in no way violating the constitution by not ordering House elections this year.

“Attorney General Miyares is confident in his legal position that the 2021 elections complied with the Constitution,” spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said Friday. “We will continue to vigorously defend this lawsuit and look forward to presenting our argument to the Court.”

The drawing of new maps was delayed a year because of tardy population results from the U.S. census during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state didn’t receive the data until late August, long after party primaries for legislative races and shortly before early voting began in the general elections last fall. A new bipartisan redistricting commission resulted in gridlock, leaving the job of drawing new legislative and U.S. House boundaries to the state Supreme Court.

As a result, members of both the House and Senate will not face voters again until 2023 unless the court orders elections to be held in November. Senators serve four-year terms, so those elected almost five months ago are expected to remain in office until the beginning of 2024. If Goldman were to prevail, delegates, serving two-year terms, could face elections in three consecutive years, as they did after a court challenge 40 years ago.

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Goldman, who lives in a relatively static House district in Richmond and its adjoining suburbs, first must prove that he has suffered a harm that entitles him to sue. He argues that an impermissibly wide gulf exists between residents of the old 68th House District, represented by Del. Dawn Adams, a Democrat, and the House district with the least population in the last census.

In eastern Loudoun, the stakes are clear.

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Brambleton, which has grown from cornfields to a community of more than 21,000 people in 20 years, also is divided among two other over-populated House districts  – the 10th, represented by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, who lives 43 miles away on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the 32nd, represented by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who leaves near the Potomac east of Leesburg.

Their districts were the 2nd and 4th most underrepresented in Virginia based on their population, respectively, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. They come together here at the intersection of Ryan and Belmont Ridge roads.

Under the new maps, Brambleton will be represented by one delegate – Subramanyam, if he’s re-elected in the new 26th District either this year or in 2023.

“I’m ready for ’22, I’m ready for ’23,” he said in an interview in a coffee shop that sits in his community but Gooditis’ district. “Whatever happens, we all are ready.”

For Loudoun Democrats, the next election is an opportunity to pick up seats in two new Democratic-leaning districts east of Leesburg – the 27th and 29th – in addition to the 26th and the new 28th, where Reid lives. Another open district, the 21st, lies just south in Prince William, which included parts of three of the 10 most politically underrepresented House districts in the state under the old map.

Moreover, two Republican incumbents – Del. David LaRock of Loudoun and Del. Michael Webert of Fauquier County – live in the same House District, the 30th, under the new map.

But Republicans also have opportunities for gains, including in the Richmond area, where Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, represents a district in fast-growing Powhatan County that holds about 12,000 more residents than the ideal of 86,314, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Under the new map, he would represent the new, strongly Republican 72nd District, which would include parts of Powhatan, Chesterfield, Nottoway and Amelia counties. The new 73rd District, an open seat, would lie next to it, solely within Chesterfield.

Similarly, Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, would continue to live in the newly drawn 56th District [although he’s running for a new Senate seat instead], but the adjoining new 59th District would be an open seat that covers parts of Hanover, Louisa and Henrico counties.

Ware, in his 25th year and 13th term in the House, doesn’t like the remedy that Goldman proposes, which would require House elections in three successive years from 2021 through 2023. He said that would require delegates “to spend a significant part of three years not representing, but campaigning.”

“Waiting 12 months is not going to cripple effective representation,” Ware said.

The stakes may be higher for minority communities that traditionally have been underrepresented, which is why the Virginia NAACP became the first major organization to call for House elections this year, followed by the League of Women Voters of Virginia and several NAACP chapters. The Loudoun chapter attempted to intervene this month in support of Goldman’s lawsuit.

The Rev. Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP, said in a statement that use of the old maps in the 2021 election “suppressed the votes, diluted the voices and diminished the representation” of more than 600 chapter members.

“The most populated district (House District 87) is comprised predominantly of people of color,” Thomas wrote earlier this month in the chapter’s request to intervene.

Subramanyam reflects the district he represents. The son of Indian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. at Washington Dulles International Airport – in the middle of the old district – more than 32% of his constituents are of Asian descent, almost 9% are Black and about 15% are Hispanic, while about 40% are white.

The demographic composition of the new 26th District is even more weighted toward people of color – 42.5% Asian, 9.3% multiracial and 8.7% Black, compared with 36.5% white. Latinos comprise 7.8% of the new district.

Subramanyam reflects his constituents in other ways. He’s a highly educated professional – a lawyer who came to the Washington area to work as a technology policy adviser for then-President Barack Obama. He works now as an attorney for a startup technology company in a region teeming with them.

He moved from Arlington County to Sterling and then to Brambleton for the schools and quality of life offered in eastern Loudoun for his wife and two children, both less than 2 years old.

“I’m like a lot of other people in that I’ve been here about five years,” he said.

Subramanyam’s arrival coincides with a population surge in Brambleton, which grew from 9,845 in 2010 to 21,358 in 2020, almost 117%.

(Overall, Loudoun’s population grew 34.8% from 2010 to 2020, to nearly 421,000 residents.)

He loves constituent service, although it’s challenging in such a large, highly populated district with priorities that vary widely from communities along the Potomac, such as Cascades, to Bull Run Mountain near Haymarket in Prince William.

“I represent everyone,” he said. “In a district this big, you’re not going to get elected if you don’t.”

But Subramanyam said the new district map is good for Loudoun.

“I think it will be great for Loudoun to have more seats,” he said. “Such a big population center, it deserves more representation.”

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