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Kaine's Window of Opportunity

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Tim Kaine needs an issue -- one which suits his progressive and idealistic nature. He must find an issue which makes use of his strongest suits — moral suasion and a talent for explaining complex issues to ordinary Virginians. The most genuinely progressive governor in decades — the most progressive we're likely to see again in a long time — Kaine has squandered two years of his term without advancing a single big, progressive idea. If things don't change soon, this potentially great governor will leave an even thinner legacy than his predecessor — and almost guarantee the election of a Republican in 2011.

Well, yes, there was universal pre-K — but that was probably DOA in 2005. With the housing collapse eating into state revenues, it's definitely dead now.

And, given the state of the deficit, Kaine's legacy can't cost much.

Fortunately, just such an issue became available as a result of the recent General Assembly elections — amending Virginia's constitution to establish non-partisan redistricting.

It's a wonderful issue. There's no question — none — that nonpartisan redistricting would greatly improve the quality of our democratic institutions.

It's unpopular with career politicians, but good for the people. Just as a competitive market for goods or services generally benefits consumers — competition for legislative seats would greatly benefit Virginia's voters. Competitive districts compel incumbents to keep in touch with their constituents — to represent their views when they conscientiously can and educate them when public opinion has fallen behind the pace of events.

Competitive districts encourage quality candidates to offer themselves as challengers to incumbents. By assuring more competitive elections, such districts increase the likelihood that important issues will receive a thorough airing.

It's great for the legislative process. Where competitive districts are rare — i.e., where gerrymandering prevails — there is a marked tendency toward political extremism.

And since both major parties tend to be dominated by ideological activists, they will — whenever they can get away with it — nominate one of their own. Where one party has a lock on a given district, it feels free to nominate a highly ideological candidate — but where a district is competitive, the party will be more likely to nominate a moderate who is more electable.

Naturally, highly ideological legislators, chosen from gerrymandered districts, often find compromise impossible. This leads to prolonged legislative gridlock — such as last year's transportation mess — or the complete dominance of one party and the virtual disenfranchisement of the other.

The elimination of gerrymandering would tend to result in more constructive compromise, more time spent on matters of serious concern to the public, and less time spent on symbolic legislation aimed at revving up each party's base.

These are all practical considerations, but there is an equally valid — purely principled — argument for nonpartisan redistricting.

Simply stated, it is difficult to see how gerrymandering — in modern practice — has anything to do with democracy at all.

Armed with sophisticated computer programs — and supplied with demographic and marketing data of incredible precision — a state legislature can carve out districts in which a challenger has virtually no chance of winning.

Stated simply, gerrymandering is the opposite of democracy. In a democracy, the voters choose their representatives; with gerrymandering, it's the other way around.

Yet given the nature of partisan politics, putting an end to gerrymandering seems next to impossible. In the year following a decennial census, the party that happens to dominate the state legislature faces an irresistible temptation to prolong its control by gerrymandering. Whatever promises it might have made in the past, the pressure to use this extraordinary weapon is simply too great.

Every now and then, however, a window of opportunity opens for reform. Such a window opened with the election of a Democratic majority in the state Senate — a majority which will, presumably, still be in power at the next redistricting session — in 2011.

Republicans retain control of the House of Delegates, but their majority has been shrinking every two years — and they must face one more election before the time comes to redistrict. In the meanwhile, the balance of power within the General Assembly will be balanced on a knife's edge.

And in 2009, Virginians will elect a new governor, who will wield a potential veto over the redistricting process.

What that means is this: For the next few years, neither party can be certain who will hold the upper hand in 2011. It is a rare moment when the two parties might — faced with sufficient public demand — find it in their common interest to amend Virginia's constitution to end gerrymandering.

And Tim Kaine is exactly the man to create that demand.

The window of opportunity is open. Kaine's major policy initiative is dead, and he has just two years to create a legacy — with no new funds to work with.

Ending gerrymandering is an issue on which Kaine could claim the high moral ground — and selling such a reform to the public exactly suits his style of leadership.

Moreover, with both parties nervous about 2009, there's every reason to suppose their leaders could be persuaded to embrace a public-spirited reform which — at most times — would be politically impossible.

The window is open, but Governor Kaine must act quickly. S

'Rick Gray writes a column for Chester's Village News. He is a former high-school teacher and assistant principal, attorney and secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.






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