If anyone still harbors the hope that the District of Columbia voting rights amendment has a chance of approval in Virginia, what happened at a legislative meeting here today would have set them straight.
Fewer than half of the subcommittee members showed up. The chairman of the committee, who has been a vocal supporter of the measure in the past, said publicly that he thinks it "doesn't have a prayer."
And D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and Mayor Marion Barry, who are strong supporters of the measure, didn't even send representatives to argue their case.
Despite impassioned testimony by a half-dozen supporters and backing from the League of Women Voters, NAACP, Common Cause and the state Democratic Party, it now seems likely that the voting rights issue will remain where it has been in Virginia since 1979 -- buried in a General Assembly subcommittee.
"It really shouldn't surprise you," said Ronald R. Wesley, a Richmond lawyer who testified for the D.C. measure today on behalf of a black voters' group. "This is Virginia," he said in an interview before the committee was graveled to order. "I think there is an underlying fear that the District might have a black congressional delegation in the U.S. Senate, or that it would send one or more black members to the House."
Only nine state legislatures have approved the proposed constitutional amendment, which would give the District two senators and at least one voting member in the House, since it was passed by Congress in 1978. It must win the endorsement of 38 states by September 1985 if it is to become law.
Virginia traditionally has taken a critical view of the District's efforts toward self-government, blaming Washington for many of the state's problems with traffic congestion, suburban sprawl and demands on tax revenues. Many politicians gathering here for the opening of the 1981 legislature on Wednesday say it is those long-held feelings, along with concerns that the District would elect a congressional delegation that is largely black and liberal, that are helping to torpedo the voting rights amendment here.
Democratic State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia's only black state senator and the chairman of the subcommittee considering the issue, said today, that a bigger obstacle is the approval by District voters last year of a separate measure seeking statehood for Washington.
"It's paradoxical that we in Virginia are being called upon to approve a measure that the citizens of the District of Columbia have, at least philosophically, rejected," Wilder said. He said Virginia legislators who oppose the voting rights bill are likely to use the statehood decision as an excuse, telling voters that they don't want to approve voting rights when residents of the District have indicated they want something else.
Wilder in the past has been critical of Del. Fauntroy for failing to provide the "inspiration and perspiration" to get the amendment off the ground in Virginia. An aide to Fauntroy said today that the delegate, who is traveling in Brazil with members of the House Banking Committee, didn't feel it necessary to send a lobbyist to argue in Richmond.
"Fauntroy appeared before the committee in 1979 and his statements were on the record," said Johnny Barnes.