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Senate GOP's redistricting move makes session 'explosive'

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Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 9:44 pm | Updated: 11:04 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

When the Republican majority in the state Senate rammed through a new redistricting plan, they risked upsetting the delicate arrangement that allows the closely split chamber to function, experts said Tuesday.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has said he was surprised by the move, and party leaders in the House of Delegates weren't briefed either, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, said Tuesday.

The proposal shifts Senate district boundaries across the state.

“It’s made this session explosive and even more political than it already was,” said professor Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The move could easily be the end of McDonnell’s transportation initiative, Sabato said.

But redistricting is far from a done deal. The House must pass the plan, the governor must sign it and then the federal Justice Department must approve it under the Voting Rights Act. If it clears those three hurdles, it likely will head to court.

“Look at it. I mean, it’s amazing,” Sabato said. “It is a piece of partisan artwork.”

Sabato pointed to at least six districts that Democrats would be at increased risk of losing.

Democratic Sen. John Miller's Williamsburg area district would be about 12 percentage points more Republican, Sabato said.

When Democrats controlled redistricting in 2011, a portion of Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment’s district was carved off and given to Miller.

“I don’t think any of this is personal,” Miller said. “First, I don’t think it’s constitutional, so I think we’re talking about something that is never going to come to pass. If it was personal, I must be a terrible threat.”

Miller said he hadn’t had time to analyze the proposal, but noted that in 2007 he was elected in a district that had given a Republican presidential candidate 65 percent of the vote.

“I think if you’ve got the right candidate with the right message, they’ll win regardless of the district,” he said.

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, would see his district combined with Hanger's. Deeds would go from representing most of Albemarle County to a small portion of it as part of changes that would affect almost every county in Central Virginia.

“They came right at me, but you know, they’ve come at me before, and I’m still standing,” Deeds said. “I’ll take a licking and keep on ticking. One way or the other, I’ll be on the ballot somewhere in 2015.”

The governor and Deeds have what he called “a significant amount of history.” They’ve run against one another twice, including the last gubernatorial race. Deeds lost both times.

For years, Deeds said, McDonnell ignored him, but things lately have improved. On Monday morning, hours before the redistricting plan was pushed through, the deputy secretary of transportation was in Deeds’ office, taking notes for a potential transportation deal, the senator said.

“I’m convinced that this is the year we can get a transportation deal done,” Deeds said.

Now, all that’s in flux, he said.

“They put everything in jeopardy,” Deeds said of the Senate majority, adding that he wasn’t convinced that McDonnell or House Republicans knew the move was coming.

"I don't know that that district will ever become a reality," he said.

Hanger called the proposal a good plan and said he backs his caucus, but he doesn't want to risk the good working relationship in the Senate over it.

"The political boundary drawing, the redistricting is a highly partisan, political endeavor at its best, and at times it creates ill will, and at times it's best not to address it," Hanger said. "I don't want to see us overplay it to the point that we would be emulating what we're seeing in Congress."

Republicans passed the measure 20-19 on a day when one member of the evenly divided Senate, Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, was not in attendance.

Marsh, a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, chose to spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day watching President Barack Obama's inauguration.

"I wanted to attend the historic second inauguration of President Obama in person," he said in a news release. "For Senate Republicans to use my absence to push through a partisan redistricting plan that hurts voters across the state is shameful."

Republicans frequently can count on one of their own, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, to break ties like the one that surely would have resulted had Marsh voted. But Bolling was not on board this time, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch report.

The redrawn districts fix a subpar map created in 2011, remove the risk of a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act and add another minority district to raise the state total from five to six, Republican senators said.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said in an email that the governor was surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be up for a Senate vote and he hadn’t seen the legislation.

“The governor’s priorities this session are transportation, education and the budget,” Martin said. “Not redistricting.”

While Miller would see one of the sharpest shifts, he’s far from the only senator affected.

Republicans would gain 3 to 8 percentage points in districts now held by Democrats Phillip Puckett of Russell County, John Edwards of Roanoke, Mark Herring of Loudoun and Ralph S. Northam of Norfolk.

“There’s no question that the number of Republicans in the state Senate would increase,” Sabato said. “You can argue about how many, but it gives an advantage to Republicans in a wide range of Democratic districts.”

Sabato speculated that some affected Democrats might retire.

Herring, who’s running for state attorney general, said he hopes to be in that office by the time the proposed boundaries would take effect in 2015.

He pointed out that tens of thousands of voters in his district alone would be moved.

Quentin Kidd, of Christopher Newport University, called it the kind of raw power politics seen in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, rather than genteel Virginia.

“They’ve really packed districts,” he said. “They’ve gerrymandered in a really extreme way.”

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, would have a district that’s 10.5 percentage points more Democratic. She's one of several in her party who would gain Democratic votes, Sabato said.

“You’ve got to put those Democrats somewhere, so you pack them into an already Democratic district,” Sabato said.

Several Republicans also would see changes that could strengthen their holds.

Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania County, who won his seat by only about 200 votes last time around, would be in a district that’s 8 percentage points more Republican.

Reeves’ district would shift north. The territory in the south that Reeves’ district would lose would go to Tom Garrett, R-Louisa. The former Louisa County commonwealth's attorney, Garrett would go from representing a sliver of the county to representing all of Louisa.

Sen. John C. Watkins, R-Powhatan, who introduced the redistricting bill, would see a Republican surge of 8 percentage points in his district.

“This is no longer a level playing field in the slightest,” Sabato said.

Democrats said the plan violates the state Constitution.

“This has the potential of every time the majority in the Senate changes, we’re going to redistrict,” Miller said. “Now the people of Virginia don’t want that. The Constitution says we redistrict every 10 years, we redistrict in years ending in one, and that’s it. You live with the line.”

Republicans “are a couple years late,” he said.

The move threatens to make “Richmond into a little Washington” where “partisanship, polarization and gridlock rule the day,” Sabato said.

Miller said the move clearly demonstrates the need for a bipartisan redistricting commission, and noted a proposal recently had cleared a Senate committee.

“I think it’s crucial that we get politicians out of the business of drawing lines,” he said.

Deeds said he’s touted the idea of a nonpartisan redistricting commission for years, but it hasn’t gained traction.

“We can do it a better way,” Deeds said. “Other states do it differently.”

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