Assistant Professor Dr. Alex Keena began his first year teaching at VCU in August where he teaches a class on Congress and a Capstone Class Senior Seminar for the Political Science Department. With a focus on political representation of U.S. politics and a specialization in electoral systems, campaign finance, political geography and legislative behavior, Keena will be putting his specialty into action as the midterm election approaches.
Earning his associates degree at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in 2008, a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University Chicago in 2011 and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine in 2016, the Virginian native was happy to return to his roots and teach at a university he always says is a true college experience.
What stage are you currently in with writing a follow up book to Gerrymandering in America that you published in 2016?
I’m finishing up the manuscript that [a team of co-authors] are going to submit to the publisher probably, if not the end of this year, early next year. Hopefully, it will be out in two years right before the 2020 elections. The first book on gerrymandering that we did was about how Congress is gerrymandered. This book asks a different question, which is are the state legislatures, like the General Assembly in Virginia, are those gerrymandered. The reason that Congress is gerrymandered is because the states actually draw the district lines so some states have this weird rule where the members who are drawing Congress’s lines are allowed to draw their own lines, too. You can imagine the conflict of interest that that would have where you’re determining what your own electoral district looks like and who is in it and who is not in it. That’s something that nobody really has looked at systematically. That’s what the book is about. Tentatively, it would be called Gerrymandering the States. It’s still in the works and actually, what happened last time is, we had a different title and then the publisher met and they were like, “We don’t like your title.” They told us to come back and get a different title, so the title is in flux.
Since you moved here from California, what would you say are the big differences between government in Virginia and government in California?
The big difference is California is a very large state and it has a very robust social safety network. The state is very progressive in terms of its policies and its regulations. For instance, California just passed a law that says that all corporations have to have at least one woman on the board of executives. It’s crazy that there are 25 percent of companies that don’t have a woman on the board. In Virginia, our legislature doesn’t even meet all year long. It’s a part-time legislature. It’s a very old legislature and it’s also divided, but Virginia politics is a little more conservative. It’s more rooted in tradition and I will say, in Virginia, the rural part of the state, Southwestern Virginia, the Blue Ridge part of the state, has an outsized amount of power in the State House.
What are your thoughts about the upcoming midterm elections?
I think it’s going to be very important because it will determine who is drawing the maps in 2020. This will be the first election where those elected will take part in that process. The bigger election is, obviously, 2020. The  election is more important at the state level for that reason but in terms of Congress, it’s obviously important because the Democrats have a chance of retaking either the House or the Senate or both. The biggest thing that I’m noticing is the gender gap in terms of politics and I think that’s really the most interesting part of the elections. It’s important for women because more women candidates are actually running for office than ever before. It’s a test to see the power of women activists and women grassroots organizers, who are already starting to defy the odds. I think that’s probably what the story will end up being after election day.
Is there anything you would want students or faculty to know about you or your work?
Most of the attention that I’ve gotten is gerrymandering. I think [gerrymandering] is an important issue, but the bigger issue that I’m really concerned about is the effect of money in politics, which is a whole other thing. It’s a problem because it means that the very top of the socioeconomic ladder have an outsized influence in our politics. It’s for a number of reasons because the wealthy, for lack of a better word, they determine the difference between somebody who is able to run for Congress or not. You have a disproportionate number of millionaires in Congress because the wealthy have more of an influence. When you have more money, then you’re able to put your views, lock your views in terms of who gets elected. That’s a big issue that I’m tackling with that I think is probably more important than whether the Republicans or the Democrats hold office in Congress. This is, I think, more of a defining line in American politics in the future than it is right now. Gerrymandering is important and it’s interesting but money in politics is, to me, a much bigger puzzle and a much bigger problem.