McDonnell vetoes state redistricting bill

April 15, 2011

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell vetoed a bill Friday that would have put into place new state legislative boundaries for the next decade, leading to a showdown next week with angry lawmakers who had already given the maps their stamp of approval.

A lengthy legislative battle could force the courts to intervene in Virginia’s redistricting process or delay the state’s primary, now scheduled for Aug. 23.

McDonnell (R) accused the divided General Assembly of sending him maps that may violate state and federal law and splits too many counties, cities and towns.

The bill had been part of a deal hatched between the majority parties in the divided General Assembly as a way that protects incumbents but, at least in the Democratic-led Senate, did not receive any bipartisan support.

“I am concerned that the Senate plan is the kind of partisan gerrymandering that Virginians have asked that we leave in the past,’’ McDonnell said in a statement. “Certainly, the Senate can create a plan that will be supported by a bipartisan majority of senators.”

The bill will be sent back to the General Assembly, which quickly decided to return to the state Capitol on Monday, to start reconsidering the maps. The legislature does not have enough votes to override the governor’s veto.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) accused McDonnell of “playing politics,” vowing that the Senate would simply adopt the same plan again. He dared the governor to veto the map a second time.

“He won’t be satisfied unless we negotiate ourselves into the minority,’’ Saslaw said. “That’s the only thing that will satisfy him.”

The state must submit its plan to the U.S. Department of Justice in time for a 60-day review to ensure that the maps do not dilute the power of black voters in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Legislators, who already postponed Virginia’s primary once to accommodate the once-a-decade redistricting process, could delay the primary date again.

“What happens when you have stalemates is you end up in court,’’ said Sen. George L. Barker (D-Prince William), who drew the Senate map.

House Republicans, led by McDonnell's longtime friend, Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), reacted cautiously Friday. Many declined to comment, but they immediately announced that they would be back Monday morning to tweak their plan as the governor recommended.

C. Douglas Smith, director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and chairman of the Virginia Redistricting Coalition — which has aggressively advocated for a less partisan redistricting process — praised McDonnell for his action, but faulted him for not acknowledging that both the Senate and House plans were flawed.

“It’s a shame he’s trying to score political points,’’ he said. “He’s exacerbating a partisan process.”

An independent analysis of the boundaries released this week indicated that the new districts would be less compact and divide more communities than the current districts. It found that the Senate would divide 135 localities, compared with 110 under the current map, and that House would divide 198 localities, compared with 194 under the current map.

“In short, the maps presented to the Governor by the General Assembly would make a bad situation worse for the coming decade,” wrote Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

McDonnell, who received the bill late Tuesday afternoon, had been pressured from all sides, even by his closest allies, as his seven-day deadline to act neared. The last governor to veto a redistricting plan was L. Douglas Wilder (D) in 1991.

Members of McDonnell’s own advisory commission on redistricting, disappointed that their work was ignored by legislators, lobbied him to consider their report. Government watchdog groups asked that the lines be redrawn to split fewer localities. Leaders in the Senate and the Republican-controlled House wanted their bills signed into law — and in the Senate, legislators refused to pass a congressional map until they saw how he acted on state legislative maps first.

In total, the governor’s office received more than 160 calls and letters on redistricting, with far more people pressing McDonnell privately at events in Richmond or when he was traveling throughout the state.

Even his closest political ally and hand-picked successor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), had privately and publicly urged McDonnell to substitute the maps already passed by the legislature for those written by the governor’s commission, at least the Senate’s version. Bolling praised McDonnell's action Friday.

“The governor’s action gives Senate Democrats another opportunity to involve Senate Republicans in the redistricting process and produce a plan that puts the people’s interests ahead of political self-interest,’’ Bolling said.

The House had approved the plan in an 86 to 8 vote, with most Democrats, including members of the Legislative Black Caucus, approving the bill. The Senate adopted the bill on a straight party-line vote of 22 to 18.

The plan called for Northern Virginia to gain a senator and three delegates, all in the region’s growing outer suburbs, to accommodate population shifts revealed by the 2010 census.

“Since its introduction, the Senate Democrat plan has been the focus of nearly universal derision, and for good reason,’’ Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) said. “Other than the 22 members of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus, it is impossible to find praise for . . . (the) hyper-partisan redistricting scheme.”

But Saslaw and Barker both said they had made several adjustments in the map for the Republicans. Both said they were told by lawyers that their map is constitutional.

If McDonnell vetoes the plan a second time, Saslaw said, the Senate will not adopt a third plan.

“That’s it — we’re not sending any more after that,” he said.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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