Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) angrily accused Republican members… (BOB BROWN/AP )
RICHMOND — The secret plan began unfolding about two weeks ago. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. went to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling with a way to redraw Senate districts and make them more favorable to Republicans.
But Bolling rejected the idea, fearing that it would set a bad precedent, according to two people familiar with the meeting but not authorized to discuss it publicly. Bolling, who would be needed to break a tie vote in the evenly divided Senate, also thought the move would so inflame partisan passions that lawmakers would lose sight of such priorities as transportation and education.
Republicans would have to wait for the right opportunity.
It presented itself on Inauguration Day, when Virginia Democrats basked in their second straight presidential win and one in particular traveled to Washington to witness President Obama’s swearing-in: Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond).
With the civil rights lawyer, who decades ago argued school desegregation cases and served as Richmond’s first black mayor, away in the District on Monday, Republicans saw their chance. They took up a bill that had been on the calendar for days, only to be passed over every time, and gave it the legislative equivalent of an extreme makeover.
Left over from last year, the original bill called for “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries. On Monday, without hearings or notice, Republicans amended it on the floor so that it also called for far-reaching changes to state Senate districts. The debate on the 36-page amendment was limited to 30 minutes.
The bill, approved 20 to 19, concentrates minority voters in a new Southside district and changes most district lines. Democrats said the new map would make eight districts, six of them held by Democrats, more heavily Republican. The map, which now goes before the Republican-controlled House, also puts senators R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) into one district. It also adds more Democrats to three already deeply blue districts.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) was among those surprised by the new political map. He said he was concerned that his own party’s redistricting attempt will kill any bipartisan spirit and torpedo his ambitious agenda in his final year as governor.
McDonnell declined to say whether he would sign the legislation. He added that he was only informed of the Republicans’ plan shortly before the bill hit the floor Monday and watched it unfold on TV from his office in the Capitol.
“I certainly don’t think that’s a good way to do business,” said McDonnell, adding, “This was not an initiative that I advocated.”
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Powhatan) said the changes would give Virginia a sixth majority-black district and protect the commonwealth from possible litigation under the Voting Rights Act. He also said the map would improve on the lines that Democrats had drawn to benefit their party when they controlled Richmond’s upper chamber.
“As those who were here then will recall, the 2011 redistricting process was not this body’s finest hour,” Watkins said. “The map that was produced was lambasted for dividing too many localities, splitting too many precincts, having high deviations between districts, violating basic standards of compactness and discounting communities of interest.”
In 2011, the then-Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House hatched plans meant to protect their incumbents, but McDonnell vetoed the plans saying the maps could split too many local jurisdictions and violate state and federal laws. The legislators then agreed to new maps.
Watkins said those lines still fell short, although the Republican moderate acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that he was somewhat uncomfortable leading the charge on the changes. He said he did so at the request of Senate Republican leaders.
Norment (R-James City) did not return messages seeking comment. On the Senate floor Tuesday, he said that the new map makes the districts “more compact,” noting that the Democrats’ plan in 2011 put him in a district “that ran me almost from the North Carolina line to the outskirts of Richmond.”
Democrats accused Republicans of trying to “pack and crack” black voting power and of exploiting the absence of a civil rights leader, on the occasion of the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president, to do it. That Monday also happened to be Martin Luther King Day only added to their anger.
“We’ve witnessed a redistricting bill thrust upon us without any notice . . . done under the guise of being good to black folk,” Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said on the floor Tuesday.
The state constitution calls for redistricting every decade after the decennial census in years ending in 1. Democrats take that to mean that redistricting can only take place every 10 years, but some Republicans suggest that the 10 years is a minimum, not a maximum.