New U.S. House map racing through GOP-ruled Va. Assembly
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Now in control of both the Virginia House and Senate, legislative Republicans are rocketing their congressional redistricting plan to passage over Democratic objections that it shortchanges black voters.
Having missed a constitutional 2011 deadline for passage, the Republican-authored plan advanced on a voice vote Thursday to a final reading Friday in an overwhelmingly GOP House.
A Democratic-ruled Senate stymied the plan last year. That happened less than 24 hours after the House Privileges and Elections committee quickly and quietly approved the bill shortly after the 2012 session opened Wednesday.
The Senate, now under GOP rule, could complete work on the bill early next week, readying it for Gov. Bob McDonnell's pen as soon as the end of next week.
Democrats say the bill boosts black voting age percentages in Virginia's lone minority district by taking predominantly white precincts from adjacent districts that become whiter and more likely to support Republicans.
They also note the disparity between Virginia's overall population, which is about one-fifth black, and its congressional delegation of 11 representatives and two senators, only one of whom is black.
Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat and Virginia's first black U.S. House member since Reconstruction, represents the 3rd Congressional District, which snakes along the James River from Norfolk to Richmond and has a black population of 56 percent percent.
"We ought to have more than one minority member of Congress," said Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and a member of the Legislative Black Caucus. "This bill will not allow minorities in any district but the 3rd to elect the candidate of their choice."
Under the fast-tracked bill of Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, the black population of Scott's district would swell to nearly 60 percent the black population of Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes' neighboring 4th District drops by 2 percent.
That, McClellan said, amounts to packing, or minimizing the number of seats minority candidates can win by grouping minority neighborhoods into one district.
Democrats say it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 in response to Jim Crow laws and other efforts to suppress black votes, particularly in former Confederate states.
"Redistricting is something that needs to be done right because we have a history in Virginia of not doing the right thing for nefarious reasons," she said in the Capitol that was once the seat of Confederate government and home base for "Massive Resistance," Virginia's institutionalized defiance of federal court orders to desegregate public schools.
In a rival plan offered by Senate Democrats last year, the black percentage of Scott's 3rd District would drop to 44 percent - which would leave the district still winnable for the popular 11-term congressman - while the black population for adjacent 4th District would increase to 54 percent.
That would provide Virginia with a majority-minority district and a "minority influence" district.
Bell, however, countered that the federal law is clear and unambiguous in mandating that black voting strength not be diluted, and argued that his bill heeds the letter and spirit of the law by bolstering the minority population of Scott's district.
His position not only enjoys the support of Republicans, who rule more than two-thirds of the House, but some black Democrats, including Del. Kenneth Alexander of Norfolk.
"If you drop that district to something like 40 percent (black), you may get another Democrat elected, but that Democrat might not be an African-American," Alexander said. "I can't see losing what you've got now with the one district for the chance to go for two."
The Democratic plan might work as long as Scott stays in office, Alexander said.
"But take Bobby out of the equation. Then what about a candidate Kenny Alexander or a candidate Jennifer McClellan?" he said.
Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, questioned the breakneck pace of Bell's bill through a GOP legislature, and noted that it took Democrats unaware. "What's the rush," he said.
The bill not only has to clear the General Assembly and get McDonnell's signature, it then must be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice for compliance with the Voting Rights Act and be ready in time for candidates to qualify for the U.S. House primaries in June.