Surprise redistricting: Local GOP delegates mum about controversy
Business for the day had already concluded in Richmond on January 21– Martin Luther King, Jr. Day– when Republican senators took advantage of the absence of a Democratic civil rights leader, Henry Marsh, who was attending the presidential inauguration, to push through a far-reaching redistricting bill while they had a 20-19 advantage in the evenly split Senate.
The bold action has put the national spotlight on the Virginia General Assembly again, and won accolades from Stephen Colbert, who's dubbed the Republican senators "alpha dogs of the week."
Quips Colbert, "In the words of Dr. King, I have been to the mountaintop, and while I was there, they heavily redistricted the Promised Land."
The bill carved up Dem state Senator Creigh Deeds' 25th District, which contains most of Albemarle, and now is in the hands of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. At press time, they hadn't taken any action on it.
House Minority Leader David Toscano denounced the move as a "power grab," as well as being unconstitutional and violating "all sense of fair play." He's also argued on the House floor that the amended bill is "not germane" to the original House bill, because it was so substantially changed in the Senate. It's up to House Speaker Bill Howell to rule on that.
Albemarle also is represented by three Republican delegates, and the Hook checked in to see where they stand on the redistricting bill that has created a firestorm. Delegates Rob Bell, Steve Landes, and Matt Fariss did not return phone calls from the Hook.
Nor did Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), who represents eastern Albemarle and whose redrawn district would have eight percent more Republican voters. A person answering the phone in his office referred calls to Senator John Watkins (R-Powhatan), the man who introduced the redistricting bill January 21. Watkins did not return a phone call from the Hook.
A reporter did catch up with one Republican– Supervisor Ken Boyd, who sought the GOP nomination for the 5th congressional district in 2010. As noted by cvillenews.com, Boyd was directly affected by the redistricting bill, which moved his Key West neighborhood from the Dem-heavy 57th into the more Republican-leaning 58th.
"I was totally surprised to see it go through," says Boyd. "Key West is split right down the middle," he explains, with part of the neighborhood in the 57th and part in the 58th– the sort of problem the bill originally was supposed to fix.
"I think if we can fix the precinct problem," says Boyd, "I'm for that."
He calls the move that has Democrats howling "politics as usual. It's not like it's something that's never been done before in [former Democratic House Majority Leader] Dickie Cranwell's day." Boyd adds, "This is the way they play in Richmond."
On the heels of the redistricting bill– which Senate tiebreaker Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling said he wouldn't support, and which Governor Bob McDonnell didn't even know was coming– another bill emerged from a Republican senator that would reapportion Virginia's 13 electoral college votes in presidential elections.
Instead of the current winner-of-the-popular-vote-takes-all, Senator Bill Carrico's bill would give electoral votes to the winner of the most congressional districts. In 2012, popular-vote winner Barack Obama would have gotten four electoral votes instead of 13.
“The governor does not support this legislation," says McDonnell spokesperson Tucker Martin. "He believes Virginia’s existing system works just fine as it is. He does not believe there is any need for a change.” The bill apparently died January 25 when two Republicans in the 20-20 split Senate said they would not support it.
"This is part of a clearly stated agenda by national Republicans to extend gerrymandering from congressional districts to the presidential election," declares Richmond Sunlight's Waldo Jaquith. "Dividing electoral votes is only happening in states that Obama carried and that have Republican-controlled statehouses," he adds.
Jaquith predicts the redistricting bill will pass the House of Delegates– and that it will damage the General Assembly's goal to address transportation in a bipartisan way.
"It's off the rail, to use a metaphor," he says. "I don't see how you can return to transportation or anything else after this huge breach of trust. It's a tremendous hurdle to get past."
“The governor’s focus is transportation, education, and the budget," says spokesperson Martin. "Not redistricting. He was surprised by the Senate’s action on [January 21]. He does not believe it’s how business should be conducted in Richmond. If this bill makes it to the governor’s desk he’ll review it at that time, in great detail, as he does with all legislation.”
That he condemns the method doesn't guarantee McDonnell won't eventually sign the bill should it come before him, ventures satirist Colbert.
“It’s kind of a game-time decision," he says. "After all, if somebody offered me a panda burger, I would definitely say, ‘The idea is repellant and offensive, but if you’re just going to throw it out...’”
Jaquith believes McDonnell's decision to sign or veto the bill depends on his wider political aspirations and how great the opposition is to it.
"Virginia can't go one year without being a national laughing stock," says Jaquith. "These are raw displays of political power. The goal is not to be loved; the goal is to win."