|On King Holiday, Va. Republicans Shock Legislature With 'Plantation Politics'|
Va. State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press
(TriceEdneyWire.com) - Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, Senate Democratic Caucus chair, blasted it as “plantation politics.”
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, Virginia Legislative Black Caucus chair, slammed it as “subterfuge, manipulation and outright arrogance.”
And Delegate Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, Virginia Democratic Party chair, labeled it “downright undemocratic.”
They were referring to the power play that the 20 Republican senators employed on Monday, Jan. 21, to ram through an overhaul of the 40 Senate districts through the divided 40-member chamber without warning.
They did it on the day the nation celebrated the holiday honoring civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama was sworn into a second term. The surprise maneuver is seen as an attempt to boost GOP chances of winning the Senate in the 2015 elections. But it flouted legislative traditions and even a 2004 amendment to the Virginia Constitution that limits redistricting to once a decade following the U.S. Census.Democrats could not block the Republicans from attaching their revamp to a House bill making minor technical
adjustments to delegate districts.
Richmond Sen. Henry L. Marsh III was in Washington attending the inauguration. That left the remaining 19 Democrats one vote short.
“I am outraged, and I am saddened,” Sen. Marsh said after learning that his attendance at the inaugural had opened the door for Republicans “to push through a partisan redistricting plan.”
“It’s shameful,” Sen. Marsh said, calling the new plan “unconstitutional” based on his 50 years of experience as a civil rights lawyer. Marsh was also elected Richmond's first Black mayor in 1977.
Timing was critical. Had Sen. Marsh been present and the outcome tied, the Senate’s president, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who opposed the Senate GOP’s tactics, would have sided with the Democrats and cast his decisive vote to reject the amendment. The Republican move appeared to shatter any prospect for a bipartisan truce in the Senate on other issues, galling Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who called his party’s Senate action a threat to his legislative priorities — overhauling transportation funding and reforming public education.
“I don’t think that’s the way business should be done,” said Gov. McDonnell, who is in his final year and is hoping to win support for proposals he sees as his legacy. “What I’ve said is that this session should be about education and transportation, not redistricting and other things.”
However, he stopped short of saying he would veto the Senate plan if the House approved the legislation. The governor needs to reassure Democrats he will veto the bill, said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. “Dick” Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “If he doesn’t, then the likelihood of transportation (reform) or anything else passing here is highly suspect,” he warned.
The plan Republicans muscled through was largely the work of Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan. Among other things, the plan wipes out a western district Senate seat held by a Democrat, weakens other Democratic Senate districts, while adding a new majority-black district stretching from Petersburg to Danville.
Sen. McEachin said the Watkins plan would not be good for Black Virginians. He said the new district would cram in Democratic-leaning black voters, allowing Republicans to strengthen their grip on nearby districts by moving predominantly White precincts to them. “That is packing” Sen. McEachin declared, calling it a way to reduce Black influence. “That is plantation politics.”
Sen. Locke said she could support an additional Black-majority district, but excoriated the Republicans for their tactics. “If (GOP senators) really want a serious discussion and debate on redistricting, then we should do it openly.”
Both she and Sen. McEachin called the Watkins plan part of a broader GOP effort to restrict voting, particularly after a GOP voter identification bill enacted last year failed to give Republicans the lift they needed in November to prevent President Obama from winning Virginia for a second time.
Along with the redistricting plan, they pointed to new GOP efforts to further tighten voter-identification criteria. Sen. McEachin noted a GOP bill that proposes to apportion Virginia’s 13 presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than the current winner-take-all method, a change that would have kept President Obama from winning Virginia.
He also cited the GOP’s blanket rejection of bills to make absentee voting easier and to back Gov. McDonnell’s own request for automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons who have served their sentences. Senate GOP Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City County, chafed at the remarks and accused Democrats of recklessly evoking still-tender history in the former Confederate capital to exploit raw emotions.
He and Sen. Watkins described the new redistricting plan as an effort to reduce the number of precincts and communities that were divided by the previously approved 2011 Senate reapportionment overseen by Democrats — and increase minority Senate representation.
There are currently five Black senators. It is still uncertain whether the Watkins plan will pass in the House. House Speaker William J. “Bill” Howell, R-Fredericksburg, said he, too, was blindsided by the Republican power move.
He refused to endorse the Senate’s new redistricting plan or speculate what might become of the amended bill when it returns to the House floor. If it passes the House and is signed by the governor, the Senate plan would still need approval of the U.S. Justice Department, which must review all changes to elections in Virginia because of the state’s past history of discrimination.