Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb today ordered the General Assembly to reconvene next Thursday in an effort to resolve a redistricting crisis that some legislators charge has been created by a few powerful white Democrats who have successfully resisted being placed in largely black districts.
The special session, coming on the heels of the Justice Department's recent finding that a House of Delegates plan was racially discriminatory, will mark the 14th time during the past year that state lawmakers have met in attempts to carve up new House districts.
Each time the legislators have run smack into a seemingly insurmountable roadblock--the political necessity of protecting a handful of white Democrats from Hampton Roads districts with some of state's largest concentrations of black citizens.
"You have a half-dozen senior Democrats down in Tidewater who are really the power structure of the legislature," said House Minority Leader Del. Vince Callahan (R-Fairfax). "And they've been trying to look out after their own skins throughout all this. I can't say that I blame them. I'd be doing the same thing if I was in their shoes."
The Tidewater Democrats, moreover, have played the game with a relish and enthusiasm that is likely to further complicate matters for the legislators when they return here. The night Justice rejected the last House plan, Del. Thomas Moss of Norfolk, the House majority leader and a key player in the redistricting melodrama, publicly invited the federal bureaucrats "to stick it up their ear."
Throughout the dispute, Moss has been among the most tenacious defenders of maintaining an at-large, citywide legislative district in which he and other incumbent Norfolk Democrats have won easy reelections for years.
Civil rights groups have argued that these citywide districts perpetuate an electoral stranglehold by white-dominated party organizations, freezing blacks out of the political process. To date, they have carried the day in court and with Justice, which must review all redistricting changes in Virginia under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"There's nothing wrong with protecting your incumbency," declared Moss in an interview this week. If the state is ever forced to adopt what the civil rights groups are demanding, "I would be defeated or I wouldn't run again. That's self-evident."
Currently, there is one black in the five-member House delegation from Norfolk, which is Virginia's largest city and has a population that is more than 35 percent black. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have been pressing for at least two single-member districts with black majorities, but Moss argues that the civil rights groups' plan is unfair.
"They want to be overrepresented," said Moss. "They're insisting on having two districts in five. That's giving them blacks more representation than they're entitled to."
With the citywide district in Norfolk thrown out by the latest Justice rejection, legislators next week are likely to consider a new plan unveiled yesterday by House Privileges and Elections Committee chairman Claude Anderson (D-Buckingham). The plan, drawn by Anderson and state Attorney General Gerald Baliles after a meeting with Justice officials in Washington this week, redraws boundaries in Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth and Norfolk, the four areas in dispute.
The plan, which will be given its first legislative hearing in Norfolk on Friday, has already been denounced by civil rights groups. They charged today that it puts white incumbent Dels. L. Cleaves Manning and Johnny Joannou in Portsmouth, a 45 percent black city, in districts in which the critics say the two Democrats' reelection would be assured. In Norfolk, critics say, the plan would create four of five districts that would be white-dominated at the polls, including one for Moss.
"The plan is an insult, I don't even know why they bothered to come up with something so patently discriminatory," said Judy Goldberg, lobbyist for the ACLU. "They're once again putting their own self-interests and prejudices above the welfare of everybody else, including the taxpayers. I thought that sooner or later they would learn their lesson but they keep proving that they won't."
Ironically, one of the proposed Portsmouth districts that is criticized has a 59 percent black majority, while another in Norfolk has a 61 percent majority. But the ACLU contends that these districts would end up white-controlled.
"Because of underrepresentation of blacks and the fact that their population is generally younger, you need districts that are at least 65 percent black," Goldberg said.
Moss says this merely proves his case that the ACLU and Justice have gone far beyond their original goal of preventing voting discrimiation. "They want to guarantee the right to be elected," he said.
But at the core of the dispute, said Goldberg and other civil rights activists, is a legacy of discrimination--dating back to poll taxes and segregated school systems--that have denied the state's black citizens a voice in state government.
They argue that Virginia today has the smallest number of black elected officials--124 out of more than3,000--of any state fully covered by the Voting Rights Act. The state's population is 19 percent black, but only five blacks are members of the 140-member General Assembly.
"Virginia is an example of a state with continuous problems of discrmination with respect to the right to vote," said Frank Parker, a veteran Washington-based civil rights lawyer who has been coordinating the case against the state. "The racial gerrymandering we're fighting in Virginia right now is the same battle we fought in Mississippi for 14 years."
While threatened legislators counter that the battle is for them more a case of self-preservation than racial discrimination, Virginia has had more redistricting plans rejected by Justice than any southern state covered by the Voting Rights Act.
Five separate House plans were adopted. Two were shipped back by former Republican Gov. John Dalton, one was rejected by a federal district court as unconstitutional and two were turned down by Justice. The process--including the cost of a Richmond law firm to defend the plans in court and before Justice--is estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
"It's making us look foolish in the eyes of the public," said Callahan. "I spent the better part of last year going to hearings and attending conferences and meetings over redistricting. Now I think everybody would like to get the damn thing over with."