Senate Republicans on Monday pushed through a surprise rewrite of the 2011 redistricting plan that erases a Democratic seat in western Virginia and creates a sixth majority black district that would be located between Petersburg and Danville.
Democrats were shocked by the move, vowing to oppose the new plan in court as an unconstitutional redo of Senate district boundaries.
The new map — which Republicans pushed through without support of the governor or the lieutenant governor — would lump into the same district Republican Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds of Bath.
In return, the map would create a sixth majority black district that would be located somewhere between Petersburg and Danville.
No members would lose their seats and no special elections would be required at this time. The new boundaries, if approved, would take effect in the next Senate election in 2015.
The maneuver immediately poisoned the atmosphere at the 2013 General Assembly and threatened to imperil Gov. Bob McDonnell’s agenda. The governor, now in his last full year in office, distanced himself from the move.
The revised plan cleared the Senate on a party-line vote of 20-19. Missing Monday afternoon was Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, who was in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
The new black-majority seat would be partly carved out of Marsh’s district.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the Democratic leader, reacted angrily, saying “It's totally over on transportation,” referring to one of McDonnell’s key initiatives.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell, said “the governor was very surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be voted on by the Senate today.”
Martin added: “He has not seen this legislation. If the bill gets to his desk he will review it in great detail at that time as he did with prior redistricting legislation. The governor’s priorities this session are transportation, education and the budget. Not redistricting.”
While the amended plan for redrawn districts likely will sail through the Republican-dominated House of Delegates, the bill faces a number of hurdles before it could become law.
Even if McDonnell were to sign the bill – no certainty – any change to Virginia’s district boundaries requires approval by a federal judge or the U.S. Justice Department because of the state’s history of racial discrimination.
Under the state constitution, the legislature redraws boundary lines each 10 years after the national census. McDonnell signed a bill creating new legislative district boundaries in April 2011.
Courts previously have permitted technical adjustments to districts in the interim, but not such a sizable rewrite. Democrats pledged to sue to stop the plan.
“If this plan stands, there will be litigation, you can be sure of that,” Saslaw said. “The Virginia Constitution says that the Virginia General Assembly shall redistrict in 2011 and every 10 years thereafter.
“This will be struck down. The collateral damage from this thing will be immeasurable. This isn’t the last we’ve heard of this.”
The state's senior senator, Democrat Charles J. Colgan of Prince William. was angry over the Republican move.
Referring to the possible loss of Deeds' seat, he said: “We lost something bigger than that -- integrity.”
Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who presented the bill on the Senate floor, defended the new map. He said it would bring Virginia in closer compliance with federal civil rights laws that promote the creation of majority-minority districts.
“It will clean up the lines, protect us against the threat of litigation, and provide an excellent opportunity to allow the demographics of this Senate to more closely align with those of the commonwealth at large,” he said.
Marsh, reached by telephone after the vote, said it was the first he had heard of the move. He declined comment until he could return to Richmond and review the measure.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said there have been no hearings on the plan and the public has “no idea” what the new districts would look like.
“The good working spirit that this Senate has had will come to a very quiet, very sudden end if this bill is passed,” McEachin said.
Republicans apparently pushed for the revisions Monday – when Democrats were down one vote in the 20-20 chamber -- because they couldn't count a tie-breaking vote from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who is the Senate's presiding officer.
Bolling was told about two weeks ago that Republicans would attempt the rewrite and he signaled he could not vote with his party, believing forced changes in the Senate map would have a poisonous effect on the chamber.
Bolling's spokeswoman, Ibbie Hedrick, issued a statement after the vote in which she said the maneuver “is not something that he supported.”
Hedrick continued, “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.”
Jeff E. Schapiro and Olympia Meola contributed to this report.