After two days of backroom politicking, partisan feuding and an encounter in a local restaurant where a state senator called two other senators political "prostitutes," Virginia's General Assembly agreed today for the third time on House and Senate redistricting plans.
The agreements follow rejection of previous House and Senate plans by either the Justice Department or a federal court. Both courts and Justice still must act on the latest plans, and Republican Gov. John N. Dalton has threatened to veto the House proposal.
The plans were approved after bare-knuckled political in-fighting that genteel General Assembly members would like to keep behind closed doors. "When you're involved in a tough political battle you frequently employ political hyperbole," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (D-Alexandria), who played a major role in the final Senate plan -- and the restaurant confrontation.
Late Monday afternoon, Mitchell forged a surprising bipartisan coalition of Northern and Western Virginia legislators to pass a Senate redistricting plan that divided Norfolk into two districts, one with a 1 percent black population edge. Previous Senate plans gave whites a majority in both districts.
Mitchell's plan was bitterly opposed by the Democratic leadership in the Senate and the three Norfolk senators who in earlier battles had already lost one seat and the right to run at large from the city. Later that evening, when Mitchell and Sen. A. Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach) went to an Italian restaurant to celebrate their upset victory, they encountered a table of Norfolk legislators.
"You're whores, you're prostitutes," shouted Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk). "How much do you charge -- $5, $10, $15?"
Neither Mitchell nor Canada responded to the insult. They left the restaurant, followed by Sen. Joseph Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk), who apologized for the outburst.
"That's part of the heat of combat sometimes," said Mitchell this morning. "You shouldn't take too seriously the rantings of a man who has obviously had too much too drink."
The House redistricting plan, which caused controversy Monday, passed the House today without debate by a vote of 61 to 33. The Senate then approved the plan by a narrow margin of 19 to 15.
Under the plan, Northern Virginia will keep all 21 delegates it won under the previous plan. The region's House districts remain the same, although they have been renumbered.
Today, the Senate battled over its redistricting plan, which has twice been rejected by Justice because it diluted black voter strength in Norfolk, violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Senate's Democratic leadership had offered a plan that would separate Norfolk, which has a black population of 35 percent, into two districts neither of which would give blacks more than 37 percent of the population.
Mitchell's compromise plan redrew the Norfolk line to give blacks in one district 22 percent of the population. In the other district, it gave blacks 48 percent of the population and a 1 percent black population edge. The compromise was approved by the Senate Monday afternoon.
But this morning, Mitchell and the Norfolk delegation appeared before a House committee considering the plan with an amendment to the Mitchell compromise. Sen. Hunter Andrews (D-Hampton), the Senate majority leader, called it a "technical amendment." The amendment switched one predominantly white precinct with a predominantly black precinct -- giving whites, instead of blacks, a 1 percent majority.
"Hunter's a liar to say those are just technical amendments," Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), the Senate's only black member, told reporters. "That was changed for no other reason than to increase the white population in that district."
The amended Senate plan, however, was rejected by the full House in a voice vote.
Supporters of the passed Senate plan were confident it could win Justice approval. "This is not what I asked for, but this bill has the best chance of passing Justice muster of any we sent up there," said Sen. Wilder, who had supported a defeated redistricting plan that would have given blacks 54 percent of the population in one of Norfolk's two districts.
The first hurdle for the House plan will be Dalton, who has already threatened to veto it because it squeezes Republican incumbents together in some districts, forcing them to compete for just one seat. After today's close vote in the Senate, Republicans seemed certain that enough disgruntled Democrats would aid them to sustain a Dalton veto.
In that event, the lawmakers would reconvene in late December before Dalton leaves office. Many left the State Capitol today expecting to return next month.