Black Senate Democrats referred to the GOP’s party-line power play Monday as “plantation politics,” reprising the specter of the same spiteful partisan gridlock that paralyzed the Senate last year.
A scowling Gov. Bob McDonnell delivered a clear rebuke while most Republicans in the House maintained a cold, dismayed silence over the Senate move that caught them off guard.
“Obviously the tactics used yesterday were a surprise and don’t think that’s the way business should be done,” McDonnell said. “I’m not happy about the things that have happened.”
“What I’ve said is that this session should be about education and transportation, not redistricting and other things,” he said.
Despair over the partisan rift was so deep that many lawmakers of both parties compared the damage to the 2001 session, the only one in modern Virginia history to adjourn without finishing work on the state budget.
Ignoring ancient legislative traditions and even a 2004 amendment to the Virginia Constitution that limits redistricting to once a decade, the Senate’s 20 Republicans shocked Capitol Square by their actions Monday. They abruptly amended a House bill that previously made minor technical boundary adjustments into a total revision of all 40 Senate districts passed in 2011.
With Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh away at President Barack Obama’s inaugural Monday, Senate Republicans caught the 20 Senate Democrats one vote short and muscled Sen. John Watkins’ surreptitious floor amendment to passage on a 20-19 vote with little debate in just 30 minutes.
Timing was critical. Had Marsh been present and the outcome tied, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling — who also denounced the Senate GOP’s tactics — would have sided with the Democrats and cast his decisive vote to reject the amendment.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said the GOP plan packs Democratic-leaning black voters into a new minority-dominant district in rural Southside Virginia while pulling away conservative-voting precincts to strengthen the number of Republican-friendly districts.
The measure, he charged, was “thrust upon us without any notice, without going through the proper procedures of taking a bill that expansive and letting the people of Virginia hear about it, testify about it (and) comment on it.” Then, he continued sarcastically, “Oh, and … it was done under the guise of being good to black folks.”
“That is packing. I have said it before and the other side does not like to hear words like this but I will speak truth to power on this day: that is plantation politics,” said McEachin, who is black.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton and also black, said she would support an additional black-majority district, but excoriated the Republicans for what she called “manipulation, subterfuge and outright arrogance.”
She and McEachin called it a new wrinkle in a broader GOP effort to restrict voting after a voter identification bill enacted last year failed to give Republicans the lift they needed in November to avert a second consecutive Obama victory in Virginia.
Besides the reapportionment surprise and new efforts to further tighten voter identification criteria, he noted a GOP bill to apportion Virginia’s 13 electoral votes by district rather than the current winner-take-all method. He also cited the GOP’s blanket rejection of bills to make absentee voting easier and McDonnell’s own request for automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve 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.
“I don’t know how the discussion of the election of the president got rolled into this other than to try to buttress an inflammatory argument,” he said. Norment described the bill as an effort to reduce the number of precincts and communities that were divided by the 2011 Senate reapportionment overseen by Democrats.
“I would remind those who are so critical of what happened yesterday, redistricting is always a combination of politics and policy,” Norment said.
In the House, Republican Speaker Bill Howell said he, too, was blindsided by the amended bill. He said late Tuesday he had not read it and had questions about it, but refused to discuss Monday’s Senate action or speculate what might become of the amended bill when it returns to the House floor. He said he had asked House Republicans to keep quiet about it, and most of them did, deflecting reporters’ questions with a shake of the head and a look of weary dismay.
“I was pretty surprised at what happened yesterday,” said Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake. “Even if that were to be agreed to by the House — which we haven’t discussed at all — the Justice Department would have to look at it again.”
Many Republicans, including McDonnell, questioned whether Watkins’ amendment could make redistricting a quadrennial or even biennial battle instead of a decennial one.
“I think that if you start dealing with it every year or every time there’s a change in power, that’s going to create some real problems up here,” he said.
Saslaw said McDonnell could restore partisan peace by announcing his intent to veto the amended bill.
“If he doesn’t, then the likelihood of transportation (reform) or anything else passing here is highly suspect,” Saslaw said.
McDonnell stopped short of committing to that.
“If I get a bill, I’ll deal with it at that time,” he said.