RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Virginians who have been waiting months for Republican lawmakers to reform racially gerrymandered voting districts received a wave of encouragement Tuesday former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Phoning in this afternoon to a town-hall call organized by OneVirginia2021, Schwarzenegger described his own experience with redistricting when Golden State voters elected him to office in 2003.
Shortly after a budget meeting between Republican and Democratic leaders in the California Senate ended in a screaming match, Schwarzenegger said the same politicians who had stormed out of his office reached out to him to clamp down on citizen-led redistricting efforts, saying “they had it handled.”
“They were buddies cause they were in on it together,” Schwarzenegger said. “Both of them are interested in doing this manipulation to favor them, not the people.”
After observing that complacency from California’s gerrymandered system allowed incumbent lawmakers to avoid action on important issues, Schwarzenegger said he became inspired to champion redistricting.
“It was like a sprinter in the Olympics being told no matter what you’re going to win,” the former bodybuilder said of how lawmakers worked in gerrymandered districts. “He has no motivation. The only thing that makes someone perform is if someone is on their ass, that threat that they could lose.”
Once reforms set in, the results were dramatic: Schwarzenegger said 23 percent of seats flipped parties the following year, compared with the solitary state seat that switched the year prior.
Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said in a phone interview Tuesday that Virginia is on track to also experience that day of reckoning.
Ahead of the 2019 election this November — a contest in which all 100 Virginia House seats and 40 state Senate seats are up for grabs —lawmakers must sign off on new election districts to replace a 2011 map that was found to be racially gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.
The citizen-led, bipartisan fight against Virginia’s history of partisan gerrymandering began about four years ago, but reform efforts stalled initially with Republicans in control of both the state House and Senate.
Since then, however, state demographics have been shifting to the left, and Democrats picked up over a dozen House seats in the “blue wave” of 2017.
“The Republicans that have been dragging their feet are looking at court-drawn maps and thinking it’s time to level the playing field, and the Democrats, some of whom have been licking their chops to gerrymander, there’s enough people clamoring at them about redistricting reform,” Cannon said.
Virginia lawmakers are set to finalize the court-ordered redraw after debating two proposed bills in a conference committee next week.
Cannon said his organization prefers the bill passed by the Senate, which gives the General Assembly less control, as compared with the House version, which still allows partisan influence into the process.
Emphasizing his wish that the final version of the bill includes the best parts of both proposals, Cannon noted that even the House version emphasizes respect for local boundaries and keeping communities of interest together.
Cannon called it most important that the final bill includes citizen involvement, checks and balances, transparency and anti-gerrymandering language.
“I feel confident something decent will come out,” Cannon said. “Our job is to make the best possible thing.”
Touching on Schwarzenegger’s most famous acting role, Cannon also emphasized his hope that Tuesday’s endorsement will push redistricting efforts over the finish line.
“He’s been on a mission to terminate gerrymandering for