State Senate Republicans muscled a surreptitious redraft of Virginia’s 40 Senate districts to passage Monday by a single vote over bitter objections from Democrats who were blindsided by the surprise move.
On a party line 20-19 vote after limited debate, Republicans won Senate passage of an amendment to a House bill that previously had made only minor technical corrections to district lines.
Democrats and Republicans control 20 seats each in the Senate, but with one Democrat — Sen. Henry Marsh of Richmond — absent, Republicans used their one-vote numerical advantage Monday.
Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan acknowledged that the amendment’s abrupt introduction was a surprise, but defended it as an effort to create a sixth majority black Senate district in Southside Virginia. Failing to enact it, he said, would invite lawsuits under the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed to safeguard against efforts to dilute the voting strength of black people.
“I wish to avoid the litigation,” Watkins said.
But a court fight is exactly what Republicans can expect, Democrats said.
“There will be litigation, you can pretty much be sure of that,” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax County. “I don’t have to remind you the collateral damage from this is going to be immeasurable.”
Watkins quoted a 2011 newspaper column by L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor, as saying a Senate redistricting plan passed when Democrats ruled the Senate could shortchange minority representation in the General Assembly.
Watkins’ plan, however, could also free up more districts nearby friendly to Republicans, a concept known as “packing.”
Democratic Sen. Don McEachin of Henrico called it “secretive and underhanded” and warned of a resumption of partisan discord that paralyzed the 2012 Senate. His effort to send the measure to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee for more scrutiny, but it died by the same party-line margin.
“We talk about the dangers of legislating on the fly. Well, this is the ultimate in danger,” McEachin said. “The public has no idea what we’re about to do adopting this substitute, nor would they know in the next three days that it would take for this bill to ultimately pass.”
McEachin noted bipartisan harmony so far in the Senate, and warned that Monday’s GOP power play could destroy it.
“To take 15 minutes to shove this down the throats of this side of the aisle, I submit to you, will put the tenor of this session in grave danger,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Dave W. Marsden complained that the new map would shift two-thirds of his current Fairfax County-only district to more Republican-friendly Prince William County.
“If you can’t win at the ballot box, win in parliamentary maneuvering,” Marsden said in an interview. “I’m ashamed of what the Senate did here today.”
Democrats weren’t alone in denouncing the Senate Republicans’ fast work on redistricting, something traditionally done only once every decade in the year after the U.S. census. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was angry that the gambit has balkanized the Senate and jeopardizes passage of education and transportation reforms.
“The Governor was very surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be voted on by the Senate today. He has not seen this legislation,” said McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin.
Some GOP activists even panned the strategy.
“For starters, it offends most people’s sense of fair play,” said Shaun Kenney, a conservative blogger and former communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia. “And the timing is also horrible. It’s one thing to offend people’s sense of fair play. It’s another thing when you do it on Martin Luther King Day.”
The changes proposed in Watkins’ amendment would not take effect until 2015, the next regular state Senate election.
Watkins noted that no incumbent lives in the new black-majority district, creating an opportunity for 74 African-American elected officials — school board members, county supervisors, state delegates and others — who live within its borders.
However, creating an open district meant squeezing two senators into an existing district: Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath County and Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta County.
Watkins said that along with creating the new black majority district, the revised map reduces the number of split localities from 65 to 43 and adheres more closely to the “one person, one vote” principle.