Gov. Bob McDonnell said today a surprise redistricting change approved by fellow Republicans in the Virginia Senate "isn't a good way to do business" and added he doesn't want anything to "get in the way" of support for his transportation and education proposals.
"This is not an issue that I advocated and I was surprised about the vote yesterday," McDonnell said following remarks at a breakfast hosted by the National Federation of Independent Business.
"I certainly don't think that's a good way to do business," the governor said.
McDonnell said he hadn't seen the bill, sponsored by Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, which passed the chamber on a 20-19 vote. The vote was taken on a day when Democrats were down one member because civil rights lawyer Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, took Martin Luther King Day off to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington.
"I was outraged and I was saddened yesterday afternoon to learn that the Senate Republicans had used my absence to force through radical changes to all 40 Senate districts," Marsh said in a statement this afternoon.
"I wanted to attend the historic second inauguration of President Obama in person. For Senate Republicans to use my absence to push through a partisan redistricting plan that hurts voters across the state is shameful," he said.
Marsh said that based on his more than 50 years of experience as a lawyer, he believes the changes are unconstitutional.
Watkins said he did not know that Marsh would not be there for the vote.
The measure would create another majority minority district between Petersburg and Danville. But critics charged it redraws the 2011 Senate district boundaries to give Republicans greater support in at least three other districts -- potentially opening the door for more GOP gains in the 2015 election.
Preliminary analysis by the Virginia Public Access project suggests that the bill in its current form would lump Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger, R-Augusta, into one district.
The analysis also shows that Sen. John C. Miller, D-Newport News, would lose 12 percentage points of Democratic support based on 2009 election results. And it shows that Democrat Barbara Favola would gain 10 points of Democratic support in her already solidly Democratic district, while Watkins, the bill's sponsor, would reap 8 percentage points of Republican support for his seat, which Democrats viewed as a possible chance for victory in 2015.
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 Virginia Constitution, the legislature redraws boundary lines each 10 years after the national census. McDonnell signed a bill creating new legislative boundaries in April 2011.
Courts have permitted technical adjustments to districts in the interim, but not the sizable rewrite Democrats believe is embedded in the Watkins bill.
Democrats pledged to sue to stop the plan if it survives the legislative process in the House and is signed by the governor.
“If this plan stands, there will be litigation, you can be sure of that,” said Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
McDonnell said he hadn't seen the bill, and would make a decision on it if it reaches his desk. But he was clearly concerned with the impact the brazen political move would have on the coalitions he is trying to build on his top legislative priorities.
"I have two priorities this session and that is K-12 education reform and transportation," the governor said firmly.
"Those other issues are really not ones that are at the top of my list. I want to do everything possible to get significant reforms in these areas because this is what is necessary for the future of Virginia. And I would prefer nothing else get in the way of having these significant reforms."
The redistricting bill heads to the GOP-dominated House, which must approve the measure before it goes to the governor.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who presides over the Senate and also spoke at the breakfast, indicated he would not have voted for the bill if their had been a tie that brought the measure to his desk.
"I thought it was unfortunate," Bolling said in an interview. "I understand the desire to have more favorable partisan legislative district boundary lines... I think it sets a dangerous precedent for redistricting.
"This type of an action could create kind of a never-ending redistricting spiral," Bolling added. "If we're going to do this now, what happens next year if we come back with a Democratic lieutenant governor? Are we going to do it again?
"The other concern is I just fear it's going to poison the water" and prevent accomplishments on "other very important things."
Saslaw said the redistricting bill could kill bipartisan compromise on other issues.
“This will be struck down -- the collateral damage from this thing will be immeasurable," he said. "This isn’t the last we’ve heard of this.”
The development also spurred opposition on the House of Delegates floor.
House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, this afternoon urged his colleagues to reject the Senate substitute when it comes to the House of Delegates for action.
"We saw raw political power in full bloom" Toscano said in a speech on the House floor this afternoon.
He said the Senate action "subverts the will of the voters." If the bill passes "many citizens will have their senator change not by their vote, but by our vote," he said. "And that's not what democracy is all about."
Beyond any ramifications for this legislative session, Toscano said the action "interjects chaos into the process of redistricting."
Joining in the criticism of the action were Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, who issued a joint statement from Washington:
"On a day when Americans celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and inaugurated Barack Obama as President, Virginia Senate Republicans took advantage of the absence of civil rights leader Sen. Henry Marsh to push through a hyper-partisan change to Virginia's already gerrymandered legislative district map," the senators said.
"This is not the way we should be conducting the people’s business in Virginia. We are encouraged by Governor McDonnell’s statements today expressing disapproval of the tactics that were used. We urge legislative leaders and other elected officials to do the right thing to correct this disappointing and disruptive partisan action.”
Terry McAuliffe, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, also issued a statement criticizing the state Senate Republicans.
"I join Gov. McDonnell in urging the legislature to end this divisive partisan effort and instead focus on making Virginia the best place for business with mainstream solutions on transportation and education." he said. "We simply cannot afford to have the legislature spend more time on divisive partisan fights, especially as we have so many important issues to address."
(Olympia Meola contributed to this report.)
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