Watkins plays unlikely role in Senate drama

Steve Helber/AP - State Sen. John C. Watkins is one of the more moderate members of the Virginia Senate. The Powhatan Republican has sided with Democrats on a number of issues.

Sen. John C. Watkins is not the most likely Republican coup leader.

One of the more moderate members of the Virginia Senate, the Powhatan Republican has sided with Democrats on a number of issues.

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He’s backed raising taxes for roads and opposed requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion. While out front this year with a plan to lift a 30-year-old ban on uranium mining, the silver-haired nurseryman has received kudos in the past from environmental groups.

So what’s a middle-of-the-road kinda guy — someone who nearly drew a tea party primary challenger in his last race — doing leading the charge on the GOP’s surprise Senate redistricting plan?

It was Watkins who rose on the Senate floor to spring it on Democratic colleagues this week. With a 36-page amendment, he turned a bill meant to make “technical adjustments” to House districts into a wholly revamped state Senate map — one that creates one new majority-black district in Southside but dilutes Democratic sway in eight others.

Watkins and other Republicans say the new map is needed to to comply with the Voting Rights Act by creating an additional majority-minority district — the Senate has not added one since 1991 — and to correct the partisan lines they contend Democrats drew in 2011. Democrats say the move is a blatant power grab and violates the state constitution, which calls for redistricting every decade after the decennial census in years ending in 1.

In an interview in his Capitol Square office Tuesday, Watkins, 65, conceded that he was not entirely at ease playing such a prominent role in the matter. He said he’d led the charge Monday at the request of Senate Republican leaders.

“I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “I mean, I did what I needed to do because I thought it was right. I don’t like — I am not the kind of person that’s in your face, generally.”

Even if he would rather not be out front on the issue, Watkins stood by the effort, saying it was needed to unite communities splintered by the 2011 map.

“They took communities and split them in half, for no obvious reason,” he said. “It split precincts. The people [voting] walked into the church [polling place], and they’d ask you your address and, ‘Oh, this way,’ or ‘You go that way.’ If you went one way you voted for [Sen. A. Donald ] McEachin or whoever his opponent was, and you went that way, you voted for Watkins or whoever his opponent was.”

Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor, sees Watkins’s prominent role as a sign of growing partisanship in Richmond’s upper chamber.

“Moderates have become more part of the partisan action on some issues because of distrust and ill feeling generated over the last three or four years in the Senate,” he said. “. . . The Virginia state Senate is no longer a bipartisan club. For a good portion of time, there was a clear working majority of Democrats and moderate Republicans that saw themselves as an institutional counter to the House and often the governor. That’s no longer the case.”

 
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