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African-American lawmakers surprised by redistricting suit

(AP) A recently filed lawsuit seeking to redraw Virginia House district boundaries has surprised and sparked concern among some of the Democratic African-American lawmakers elected in those districts.

Filed in December by a law firm with ties to both national and state Democrats, the suit argues that state Republicans illegally packed black voters into a dozen House districts when it drew new district lines in 2011.

But many of the African-American lawmakers who represent those districts said they weren’t consulted about the lawsuit before it was filed.

“We certainly weren’t told. It would have been good if someone had shared with us that they had this great concern,” said Del. Delores McQuinn.

The lawmakers said they wanted to make sure any effort aimed at redrawing is comprehensive, not focused solely on areas with large minority populations.

“We should take into consideration the entire state, not areas that’s just totally dominated by black populations,” said Del. Roslyn Tyler.

Redistricting has been a hot topic in Virginia, a purple state where Democrats hold all the state-level elected offices but Republicans have sizeable majorities in both the state’s congressional delegation and in the House of Delegates. Many incumbent state House members in both parties, including those listed in the lawsuit, face limited opposition in general elections because they represent districts that tilt strongly Republican or Democrat.

The lawsuit was filed by Perkins Coie, a law firm often used by Democrats around the country on campaign and redistricting matters, on behalf of private citizens in each House district. Attorneys at the firm did not respond to requests for comment.

In the suit, the firm argues that state Republicans illegally drew district boundaries “with race as their predominant purpose.”

House Speaker William J. Howell has said he’s confident the 2011 redistricting plan will survive the legal challenge and has noted that it was publicly supported by a majority of African-American House members when it passed.

It’s unclear who is behind the current lawsuit. Democratic Del. Lionell Spruill, whose district is included in the suit, said two weeks ago at a news conference that he was concerned districts packed with Democrats in Northern Virginia represented by white lawmakers weren’t being subjected to same scrutiny as those in the lawsuit.

Spruill said Thursday that those concerns were assuaged after speaking with members of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s staff and other lawmakers. But Spruill would not specify whom he spoke with, or what was said.

Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit but added that the governor has made it “pretty clear” that redistricting reform is a top priority. The governor has advocated for a non-partisan redistricting commission to handle future redistricting duties.

Perkins Coie represents the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, which has been active in pursuing redistricting-related legal challenges around the country.

The law firm has had some success in Virginia, where a panel of judges ruled 2-1 in October that the General Assembly must redraw congressional boundaries because of similar concerns over the racial make-up of Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. That order is currently on hold as the state’s Republican congressmen are appealing the decision.

Perkins Coie has worked for the state Democratic Party and virtually every top Democrat in the state, including Attorney General Mark Herring. The firm represented Herring’s campaign and successful recount effort in 2013, and the attorney general still has outstanding campaign debt with the firm, campaign finance records show.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, said the AG’s office will appoint a special outside counsel to defend the state against Perkins Coie’s most recent lawsuit. Kelly said the decision to seek outside counsel wasn’t to avoid a conflict of interest but because Herring wanted to find a firm that had the expertise and capacity to handle the state’s defense.

— ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press

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