The New River Valley’s NAACP branch hosted a forum with Virginia House Delegates Greg Habeeb (R-District 8), Nick Rush (R-District 7) and Joseph Yost (R-District 12) at the group’s general body meeting in Christiansburg on Sunday.
The branch invited the delegates to discuss political issues with members as part of its Civil Rights and Educational Development Opportunities programming. About 75 people attended the meeting, and roughly half raised their hands when asked if it was their first time at an NAACP event.
In a press release, branch president Rita Irvin said, “Having our delegates accept the invitation to share with our membership is important in the legislative process. Having an effective government begins with actively listening to constituents.”
The three representatives were given an opportunity to share their thoughts on issues the NAACP has selected as legislative priorities, which include mass incarceration, voting rights and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
Yost also shared his thoughts on assisting residents who suffer from mental illness.
The discussion grew tense when representatives were asked to respond to the subject of gerrymandering. Both Habeeb and Rush were booed by some attendees for perceived defenses of gerrymandering. The two representatives clarified after the meeting that they do not support gerrymandering.
During the meeting, Rush said he did not support a proposal by the state senate this year to create a non-partisan redistricting committee.
Rush said he did so because he does not feel the redistricting committee would be as nonpartisan as it should be because members of the committee would be appointed by political leaders within the state government and not voters.
Habeeb said he thinks African Americans and rural voters lose representation when nonpartisan lines are drawn. Though Habeeb said after the meeting that he believes Virginia already has “very balanced House [of Delegates] districts,” he said he would consider supporting a new districting process if it improved objectivity and accountability.
When asked about how citizens can better share their goals with representatives, Habeeb encouraged attendees to connect with their representatives on a personal level.
“The way each of us legislates is through relationships,” Habeeb said. “When you come to advocate, and you don’t have that relationship, you won’t have that goodwill built up.”
Additionally, he recommended that members of the community find out how an issue affects locals, rather than rely on information provided by larger regional or national organizations.
“What I want to know is, is how does this play out locally?” Habeeb said. “Whatever the agenda item is, you are going to be the best advocate for it, not an association.”
Karen Jones, the NAACP’s Political Action Chair, planned and moderated the conversation.
“I thought the event really well,” Jones said afterwards. “My biggest take-away was learning how [the representatives] work. Learning about their priorities, and how they worked with constituents is important for us as a branch so we can better advocate.”
Jones said she appreciated the three representative for taking the time to attend the meeting.
The Montgomery County-Radford City- Floyd County NAACP branch was started in 1959 and currently has about 250 members. The general body meeting, which is open to the public, meets at 3:30 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of every month.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to clarify Greg Habeeb’s (R-District 8) and Nick Rush’s (R-District 7) positions on gerrymandering, and to add context to a proposal for a nonpartisan districting committee.