Black delegates tempted by Virginia GOP’s Senate map

RICHMOND — At least two black House Democrats say they might vote for the GOP’s surprise Virginia Senate redistricting plan, a move that could make it easier for Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and House Speaker William J. Howell to find their way out of a sticky political quandary.

Dels. Onzlee Ware (Roanoke) and Rosalyn R. Dance (Petersburg) told The Washington Post on Wednesday that they are considering the plan, which would create a new majority-black district in Southside but also disperse black voting power in at least eight other districts.

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The likely outcome would be to elect a sixth black senator but also to diminish the overall power of Democrats in the now evenly split Senate.

“Here’s an opportunity where I can actually have a great impact on African Americans, yet at the same time, it doesn’t help the entire Democratic Party,” Ware said. “Should I always have to forgo the interests of black people for the good of the party? . . . I have a real dilemma on my hands right now.”

Like Ware, Dance took exception to how Republicans rammed the measure through the Senate last week, capitalizing on the absence of a Democrat who was in Washington for President Obama’s inauguration. Taking up legislation calling for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, they amended it without public notice to revamp all 40 Senate districts.

“I don’t like the process,” Dance said. “But the irony of ironies is, it’s going to be hard for us [to vote against the plan] as African Americans because they create a minority seat.”

Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) was angry to hear from a reporter that some fellow members of the black caucus would consider voting for the plan, which could come up for a vote in the House on Thursday.

“I’m hot as a pot of fish grease about this,” she said. “I’m hoping that they’re not going to be so naive as to bite that bait.”

Some Democrats questioned whether the black delegates open to the map were angling for better committee assignments from Howell or eyeing the Senate district.

“Maybe you need to inquire if those persons are running for the district,” said Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond).

Support from some black delegates — Ware said there were more but declined to give names — could make it easier for McDonnell and Howell as they decide how to respond to the map. Their votes would represent a measure of bipartisan backing and perhaps defuse some of the racial overtones surrounding how the plan was unfurled.

“I’ve basically talked with African American members of the House,” Ware said. “They’re just as conflicted as I am.”

On Jan. 21, Republicans sprang a plan that they said would correct gerrymandered districts that Democrats pushed through when they controlled the Senate two years ago. Senate Democrats have called it an unconstitutional power grab.

The redistricting map surprised McDonnell and Howell as much as Democrats. Both are in a position to single-handedly kill it: Howell with a procedural move and McDonnell with a veto.

And both are said to be uncertain about whether to support the map, especially at a time when they are trying to woo bipartisan votes for a transportation overhaul that asks both parties to compromise.

McDonnell, in particular, faces a choice between what might be best for his party and what might be best for his own agenda.

The new map, which would take effect in 2015, could give Republicans control of the Senate for decades. Yet it could also make it harder for McDonnell to get Democrats on board with his transportation plan, something central to the legacy-building efforts of his last year in office.

Having some black delegates on board could help re­frame a hardball power play as a bipartisan accomplishment. That could enhance McDonnell’s image as a results-oriented executive who is above partisan squabbling. It also would provide cover for claims that the bill was pushed through in a way that was insulting to blacks.

Ware said he was troubled that Republicans slipped the map through the chamber on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond), a civil rights lawyer who decades ago argued school desegregation cases, was away at the inauguration. But he also said Marsh should have known the risks of being absent from a 20-20 chamber.

“I understand going to the inauguration, I really do. But I think if you’d have asked President Obama where he should have been, he’d have probably told him, ‘You need to be back down there protecting the interests of the people of Virginia,’ ” Ware said. “And I’m certain that Martin Luther King would have told him that. It’s too important to miss.”

After getting over the “initial shock” of the Senate action, Ware said he took a close look at the new map and liked the idea of creating a new majority-black district, something the Senate has not done since 1991. The 100-member House had added two since then.

Ware was among a group of black House members who objected to a congressional map that House Democrats drew in 2011. The map would have reduced the black vote in Democrat Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott’s district, but it created a sizable African American voting bloc in another. Senate Democrats thought Scott would be safe in the new district, but Ware feared a less-established Democrat might not be able to win the seat down the road.

“We were called ‘Toms,’ ” Ware said. “It was implied that we were still enslaved mentally because we disagreed with them. Just because I’m African American, I don’t think monolithic like every African American.”

Ware has parted company with Democrats before on some issues, including charter schools, which he supports but the party generally frowns upon.

“I can’t ignore the fact that . . . black public schools aren’t faring as well as other schools,” he said. “And for me to keep supporting the same formulas, the same conditions and don’t see appreciable change, I’ve got to sometimes say to myself, ‘Onzlee, maybe you should open up your thinking.’ ”

 
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