Area lawmakers divided by redistricting controversy

By Mark Robinson
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Mount Solon, are friends. And they’ll remain friends, Deeds says, even if a controversial measure Hanger voted for costs Deeds his seat in the Virginia Senate.

Deeds is the odd man out of the redistricting measure passed on Monday by Senate Republicans. The measure would combine his and Hanger’s districts and create a sixth majority-African-American Senate district.

“What the Republicans did is unconstitutional,” Deeds said by phone after the vote. He also took to his Twitter account to address the issue.

Deeds told his followers on the social media site: “Everybody needs to take a deep breath. We’re a long way from this redistricting becoming law. We have a lot of fight still in us.”

Deeds is right, according to John Aughenbaugh, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Virginia’s Constitution says redistricting may only occur every 10 years, following the federal census. The last census was done in 2010, and redistricting occurred in 2011. Thus, Deeds and Senate Democrats have a case to challenge the redistricting plan in state court, Aughenbaugh said in an email.

To become law, the bill passed by the Senate still must be approved by the House of Delegates and then signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Moreover, it would need federal approval to take effect. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires states with a history of voter discrimination to have any major voting changes approved by the U.S. Justice Department or a federal judge.

“We’re a long way from knowing if this is going to be real or not, but I’m not afraid of any district,” Deeds said. “I believe in the process. I’ll do what I have to do.”

At the federal level, the redistricting plan will face additional scrutiny.

The Voting Rights Act calls for states to create as many voting districts with a majority of minority voters as possible. Virginia currently has five; the Senate plan would make it six.

In remarks on the Senate floor on Monday, Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, said the creation of a sixth district with an African American majority would save Virginia from litigation under the Voting Rights Act.

Watkins introduced the revision to House Bill 259, which was originally written to make technical adjustments to House districts established in 2011. His revision passed 20-19 on a party-line vote. Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, was absent: He was in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Under the bill, the number of Republicans in Watkins’ district would increase by more than 8 percent, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group. Hanger’s district would become almost 15 percentage points more Democratic.

Hanger could not be reached for comment.

In a joint statement Tuesday, U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, called Senate’s approval of the measure “disappointing and disruptive partisan action.”

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who holds a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, has “grave concerns about the adoption of a revised redistricting plan,” according to an email sent by an aide. The aide said the measure was “not something that (Bolling) supported.”

According to the aide, the lieutenant governor is afraid the measure will distract from issues such as transportation and education. Both are priorities for McDonnell in his last year in office.

Tucker Martin, an aide to the governor, said in an email that McDonnell has not seen the legislation but would review it closely should it reach his desk

If approved, the new boundaries would take effect for the next Senate elections in 2015.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

On the web

To monitor or comment on House Bill 259, visit the Richmond Sunlight website:

http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2013/hb259/.

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