by Dick Hall-Sizemore
Redistricting and the death of U.S. Representative Donald McEachin have voters in the Richmond area feeling as if they are in a combination of musical chairs and “Who’s on first?” We need a program to keep track of who is running for what.
For those readers of Bacon’s Rebellion who don’t read the Richmond Times-Dispatch regularly or who have not bothered to keep up, but who enjoy political shenanigans and maneuvering, what follows is a summary of the events so far.
There is one factor that simplifies this narrative somewhat. The election districts involved are heavily Democratic; therefore, whatever the Republicans do does not matter much. Consequently, I will restrict the narration to the Democrats.
McEachin’s unexpected death a few weeks after the November general election in which he had been elected to his fourth term in Congress led to a cascade of special elections. Quickly declaring themselves candidates for the Democratic nomination for the Congressional seat were Sen. Jennifer McClellan (Richmond) and Del. Lamont Bagby (Henrico). Both were strong candidates. McClellan had represented the area, first in the House and then in the Senate, for many years, had been a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, and was well respected. Bagby had been in the General Assembly for several terms and had a large public profile as chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Probably many people in the district were torn as to whom to support. A last-minute surprise was the announcement by Sen. Joe Morrissey (Petersburg) of his candidacy for the seat. There seemed to be much concern that McClellan and Bagby would split the Black vote, thereby enabling Morrissey to sneak in. Perhaps yielding to pressure along these lines, Bagby bowed out. Another likely factor in Bagby’s decision was U.S. Senator Tim Kaine’s endorsement of McClellan. (Kaine justified his unusual taking of sides in a primary, saying he had known McClellan before she held elective office and considered himself a mentor to her.)
McClellan went on to handily defeat Morrissey for the nomination and then easily beat the Republican candidate in the special election in late February.
Her elevation to Congress left her State Senate seat vacant. Democrats, who had only a two-seat majority, were nervous about losing a brick from their “wall” in the upcoming veto session and any special session called to deal with the budget. Luckily for the Democrats, Virginia law provides for the speaker of the House or the president pro tempore of the Senate to schedule a special election to fill any vacancy that occurs while the General Assembly is in session.
Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the president pro tempore, scheduled the election for March 28. (The reconvened “veto” session is April 12.) Due to the provisions of law relating to the interval required between party nominations and special elections, the parties had only four days to nominate candidates for that special election. In a field of several candidates, Bagby secured the nomination.
So far, the process has been pretty straightforward. Now redistricting became a factor. The Senate seat that Bagby is running for is Senate District 9, the seat that McClellan was elected to in 2019. Due to redistricting, that seat ceases to exist on the day before the 2024 Session of the General Assembly convenes. Assuming that Bagby wins in the special election (a safe assumption since that district is the most Democratic-leaning district in the Senate), he will be able to cast votes for that district in only the reconvened session and any budget special session.
The Senate district (No. 9) is based primarily in Richmond, but also includes all of Charles City County and parts of Hanover and Henrico Counties. When the general election rolls around next fall, Bagby will be in District 14, which includes all of the city of Richmond and a portion of Henrico County. In a sense, Bagby is running for election to the “old” Senate District 9 seat, while introducing himself to some of the voters in the “new” Senate District 14. He already has opposition in the June 20 Democratic primary for that seat.
A clear winner in all of this could have been Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico). Redistricting had placed him and Bagby in the same district. However, he announced in November, before McEachin’s death started this process of musical chairs, that he would be running for election in the newly drawn 16th Senate District. (I wonder if he now wishes he had waited.)
The only unknown is what will happen to the folks in Bagby’s current House District 74, who will not be represented in the House of Delegates if Bagby is elected to the Senate. The Governor or the Speaker could schedule a special election for the district. However, it would be impossible to hold a special election before the reconvened session and it is doubtful if there could be one held before any special session called to consider the budget. Such a session might or might not happen. Anyone elected in such a special election may never participate in any General Assembly functions while representing that district and would have to quickly pivot to running for the newly created seat. The only advantage to running in such a special election would be to get a leg up in the new House District 80, which is now an open seat.
We Virginians, we do love having elections.