Virginia Republicans vent about McDonnell’s redistricting veto

April 23, 2011

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell called House Speaker William J. Howell on a Friday morning this month with startling news: The governor had vetoed a bill that would have put into place new state legislative boundaries for the next decade.

McDonnell (R) had known that he would veto the bill since it landed on his desk three days earlier, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) said. But McDonnell had not told members of his own party, including Howell, his closest legislative ally and longtime friend.

Some Republicans in the House of Delegates are angry McDonnell vetoed the bill they had been working on for months, leaving them in a precarious situation that may force the courts to intervene in the state’s redistricting process or delay the August primary.

“I was surprised and disappointed,’’ said Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), who said he called McDonnell to complain. “It puts the elections in real turmoil.”

House and Senate leaders do not have enough votes to override the veto, which means legislators must return to Richmond and start on a new redistricting bill.

House leaders, including Howell and Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), met with McDonnell on Friday to urge him to sign the next bill. The General Assembly reconvenes at the Capitol on Monday.

House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said some members are angry and others frustrated that McDonnell vetoed the bill, instead of amending it, even though his problems were primarily with how the Democratic-led Senate drew its districts. “Lots of members are eager to understand what will satisfy the governor,’’ Gilbert said. “Members want to know where this leaves us in the process.”

In interviews, more than a dozen Republican delegates expressed outrage, annoyance and disappointment with McDonnell’s actions. But most of all, they voiced concern that the veto would drag out redistricting for months or leave judges to draw districts for the first time in recent Virginia history.

After eight years of Democrats in the governor’s mansion, House Republicans were eager for the election of one of their own — a former delegate who would restore some of the state’s right-leaning policies and traditions. But in recent months, McDonnell’s style and his attempt to appeal to the center have left some delegates disgruntled.

They have faulted him for mismanaging one of his top legislative priorities — a plan to privatize the state’s liquor stores — which drew opposition even from members of his own party. They bristled at what they saw as meddling — his vetoing of four bills and amending of 134 measures, including 86 amendments to the state’s budget. They opposed his creation of a bipartisan advisory commission on redistricting, whose advice the General Assembly did not heed.

Some House Republicans upset about the redistricting veto have complained directly to McDonnell and Bolling, McDonnell’s closest political ally, who presides over the state Senate and had repeatedly called on the governor to replace the legislative-drawn maps with those drawn up by the advisory commission.

Not come as a surprise

“While we certainly understand the frustration this veto caused some House members, and we respect it, the governor’s action should not have come as a surprise,’’ McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said.

“The governor has been clear since the campaign that district lines should reflect common-sense geographic boundaries and strong community of interests,” Martin said. “The Senate plan clearly fell far short of meeting this standard.”

The House and Senate approved maps this month to reflect population shifts, particularly in Northern Virginia’s booming outer suburbs, as they are required to do every every decade after the census.

The House and Senate agreed to vote for their own plans and then each other’s as part of a deal between the chambers’ leaders. In past redistricting years, the chambers were controlled by the same party, and each passed its own bill.

Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), the architect of the House plan, said that he had planned on submitting a separate House bill but that the Senate balked and insisted on passing one bill — joining their fate.

‘All wrapped up in one bill’

“Ideally, the two redistricting plans should have been passed as separate bills and the House plan would have been able to be considered by the governor on its own merits,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, that was not the case.”

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

“I think the House of Delegates did a great job,’’ Bolling said. “It’s unfortunate for them it’s all wrapped up in one bill. I’m sure some of the members would have preferred to see the bill be signed and get on with their lives, but they have to look at the global picture.”

McDonnell vetoed the bill, saying legislators had sent him maps that might violate state and federal laws and that split too many counties, cities and towns. House Republicans said they felt as if McDonnell supported Senate Republicans, who had voted en masse against the proposal and cheered his veto, over them.

“I would prefer amendments — a veto doesn’t seem very productive,’’ Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said.

The governor called Howell, Jones and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) at 10:30 a.m. the day of the veto to tell them about his decision before it was announced publicly.

Howell did not return a call Friday seeking comment. Jones said he told McDonnell that he didn’t agree with the governor’s decision.

Two days later, the 61-member House Republican caucus held a Sunday night conference call to discuss the veto. Many complained about the governor and his office, several lawmakers said.

Delegates said they wished McDonnell or his staff would have told them about his problems with the bill while it was being debated or have given them early notice of the veto. Many of them received a call from the governor’s office and an e-mail about the veto but not until the news had already broken.

Majority Whip William R. Janis (R-Goochland) said McDonnell must work to fix the bill. “The governor vetoed the bill. Now he owns it,’’ Janis said. “It’s clear the problem is with the Senate district. He has the responsibility to work with them.”

Saslaw initially vowed that the Senate would adopt the same plan again, daring the governor to veto the map a second time. But on Friday, Saslaw said he was negotiating with McDonnell and his staff to revamp the plan to come up with a bill the governor might sign.

“We are talking to him,’’ Saslaw said. “We are trying to meet all of his concerns.’’

Risk of a second veto

Bolling said McDonnell would probably veto the bill again if the Senate did not fix the problems the governor had mentioned, putting the entire redistricting in a “precarious and uncertain position” and making it more likely that a judge would draw the state’s maps.

“I’d be disappointed if judges drew the lines because that means legislators and the governor failed to do their jobs,’’ said Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Virginia has a short timeline. The state must submit its plan to the U.S. Justice Department 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. Candidates have until June 15 to qualify to run in the Aug. 23 primaries.

“I am disappointed we are not moving ahead,” said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun).

This time, some delegates say, they don’t want to vote on the new bill without knowing first whether the governor is likely to sign it.

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