While the eyes of the nation were turned towards Washington D.C. to watch our first African-American president be sworn in for his second term, Republicans in Richmond, Va., quietly took advantage of the absence of a civil rights leader among their ranks in order to take control of the state Senate in the 2015 elections.
The state Senate is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats, although Republicans claim a de facto majority because the tie breaker vote goes to Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling. On Monday, with civil rights veteran and Democratic State Senator Henry Marsh in Washington for the inauguration, GOP senators slammed an unannounced mid-term redistricting plan through the Senate.
Marsh's absence gave Republicans the one vote majority they needed to pass the redistricting measure that's designed to maximize safe GOP seats and reduce Democratic seats.
As the Associated Press reported: "After the measure was sprung on unsuspecting Democrats, its sponsor, Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, defended it as an effort to create another majority black Senate district. What he didn't say is that it would create even more GOP-dominant districts."
An analysis by the Virginia Public Access project finds that the bill puts Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Emmett Hanger in the same district.
The same analysis also finds the state Sen. John Watkins, the bill's sponsor, picks up eight percentage points of Republican support for his seat under the new map, which Democrats saw as a potentially competitive race in 2015.
Arguments that Marsh's vote would have been invalidated by a tie-breaker vote from Bolling were dashed when his spokesperson announced he has "grave concerns" about the bill. A statement released Tuesday morning reads:
Lieutenant Governor Bolling has grave concerns about the adoption of a revised redistricting plan at this point in the process, and it is not something that he supported. He fears that this action could set a dangerous precedent for future redistricting actions, and he is concerned that it could create a hyper-partisan atmosphere that could make it very difficult for us to address other important priorities like transportation and education reform. In order to address these important issues, we need Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of Virginia, and we cannot allow divisive partisan issues such as this to make it more difficult for us to address these issues.
Virginia Democrats are outraged at the power play, vowing to take legal action. “There will be litigation, you can pretty much be sure of that,” said Senate Democratic Leader Richard Saslaw told the Washington Post. “I don’t have to remind you the collateral damage from this is going to be immeasurable.”
Even Republican Governor Bob McDonnell is criticizing the decision to ram through the legislation. "This is not an issue that I advocated and I was surprised about the vote yesterday," McDonnell said Tuesday morning according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "I certainly don't think that's a good way to do business."
McDonnell has not yet said whether he would sign the plan into law. Any new plan would be subject to approval under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former Governors, joined the chorus of outrage as well:
On a day when Americans celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and inaugurated Barack Obama as President, Virginia Senate Republicans took advantage of the absence of civil rights leader Sen. Henry Marsh to push through a hyper-partisan change to Virginia’s already gerrymandered legislative district map. This is not the way we should be conducting the people’s business in Virginia. We are encouraged by Governor McDonnell’s statements today expressing disapproval of the tactics that were used. We urge legislative leaders and other elected officials to do the right thing to correct this disappointing and disruptive partisan action.
Democratic State Senator Creigh Deeds, who's pitted against a Republican in the new plan, worried Monday it could hurt the fragile relationship between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, who battled over many contentious issues last year and who hoped for a more pleasant spirit in 2013.
“It goes against every tradition,” Deeds told Talking Points Memo. “It was a dirty trick.”
The optics of pushing a controversial redistricting plan through when a civil rights leader is unable to cast his ballot will probably hurt the GOP's brand in Richmond, but the final move of the day certainly doesn't help either. As Senate adjourned for the day on Martin Luther King Jr. day, it did so in memory of Stonewall Jackson, the famous Confederate general from the Civil War, who was born on that day in what is now West Virginia.