Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, blaming legislative leaders and himself for what he called "an expensive chapter in Virginia's history," rejected today the House of Delegates' latest redistricting measure.
The Republican governor, who has only two weeks left to serve, stopped short of agreeing with civil rights groups that have called the plan racist and blatantly unconstitutional. But he told a news conference that he was confident that either the Justice Department or a federal court would reject the proposal on those grounds.
Dalton, who was sharply critical of the lawmakers' failure to produce an acceptable plan after 12 special sessions and more than $1 million in expenditures, sent their latest plan back to them with suggested amendments. Dalton's proposals would place each of the 100 delegates in individual election districts, a step long sought by black groups and Republicans, but resisted by some of the General Assembly's Democratic powers.
In moving to end the House's prolonged redistricting efforts, Dalton rejected a provision of the plan that would have established multimember districts in eight Virginia cities that have 42 percent of the state's black population.
Legislative leaders said the plan was adopted to protect incumbents in those cities, but critics charged it was aimed at bolstering the reelection prospects of Democrats, most of whom are white and have benefited from the large black vote in their cities.
"I'm concerned that the legislature keeps addressing this problem and doesn't really come to grips with this matter," Dalton said. "It keeps on spending money on something they should have done long ago."
The governor, who had approved the first multimember plan passed last April, said today he regretted that action. "I made a mistake in not vetoing it the first time," said Dalton. "I share that responsibility with them the legislators ."
The House of Delegates, which has passed four different redistricting plans this year, has spent more than $1 million for the sessions and for legal fees to a Richmond law firm hired to defend the plans in court. The first plan was rejected by the Justice Department, the second by a three-judge federal court and the third was vetoed by Dalton earlier this month.
Dalton's amendments must be approved by both legislative houses, an uncertain prospect in the House. Should they be rejected, Dalton said, he will veto the bill. Such a veto is unlikely to be overridden, leaving the House the prospect of having to come up with yet another redistricting scheme.
That plan would probably have to be drawn by the new House, which begins its session Jan. 13 and would have to win approval from the new governor, Democrat Charles S. Robb.
House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Bassett) and Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk) were not available for comment today on what action they would recommend when the outgoing Assembly meets for the last time Jan. 12. When Democratic leaders tried to override Dalton's previous redistricting veto, they suffered an embarrassing defeat, mustering only 44 votes, less than a majority.
Spokesmen for civil rights and civil liberties groups, who had led the fight both in the Assembly and in the courts against multimember districts, said they were pleased with Dalton's decision. "We applaud the governor's action," said Judy Goldberg, lobbyist for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We think single-member districts are the fairest, most equitable way to redistrict the state."
Goldberg said her group and others still have serious reservations about the way some of the single-member districts are drawn. In Norfolk, for example, which has five delegates and a black population of 35 percent, Moss and his colleagues have carefully drawn the lines, often cutting across neighborhoods and voting precincts, to preserve the seats of four white incumbent Democrats.
"Some of the lines throughout the state are just horrifying," said Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), the Senate's only black member.
The lines in Northern Virginia have also been drawn to preserve incumbents from both parties. Republicans believe they ultimately will benefit from single-member districts because it will allow them to take advantage of pockets of GOP strength in Democratic strongholds such as Arlington. In Richmond, which has long sent an all-Democratic delegation to the House, the new lines give Republicans an excellent chance at winning one of four seats.
"The issue has brought some strange bedfellows together," said Virginia NAACP Director Jack Gravely. "Republicans have perceived single-member districts as being in their best interests. Blacks have perceived them . . . as being in their best interests."
Even some of the legislators who had voted for the multimember plan conceded the Assembly had been made to look ridiculous by the prolonged redistricting battle. Said Fairfax Democratic Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan: "People say this is politics as usual . . . that we're just a bunch of good old boys having our way in the sandbox of politics."