The best way to view the chaotic end to Virginia’s special legislative session on congressional redistricting is through the words of French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous epigram “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In 2011, Republicans and Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly had their decennial redistricting battle. Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) pushed a plan designed to elect two African Americans out of the state’s 11 congressional districts. Did McEachin gerrymander the districts to get this result? Of course. Republicans, not surprisingly, wanted a plan creating only one African American district. Did the GOP gerrymander its plan? Of course.
In the end, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, signed a redistricting plan written by Republicans to help Republicans. Democrats called the plan unfair to them. It was.
Not long ago, a federal court ruled the Republicans’ 2011 handiwork unconstitutional because it “packed” African Americans into the 3rd Congressional District, which was created to be an African American-majority district by then-Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat. The court said these voters must be reassigned to one or more surrounding districts, all of which are held by Republicans.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, called the General Assembly back to Richmond Monday to comply with the federal court order giving the state until Sept. 1 to pass a new plan with new district lines.
Republicans had another item of business besides redistricting on their agenda. House and Senate leaders vowed to use the special session to oust the governor’s recent interim appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court, Jane Roush, and replace her with their choice, Rossie Alston.
But Senate Democrats, aided by a retiring Republican senator, John Watkins, thwarted the Republicans’ court plan. This same coalition then permanently adjourned the Senate, likewise thwarting any chance for the General Assembly to pass a new redistricting plan. Gov. McAuliffe says he has no intention of calling another special session. This means the state will fail to meet the Sept. 1 deadline. Does this make the state in contempt of a federal court order? Legally, no. But politically, yes.
Republicans called the maneuver a childish legal trick that evades the state legislature’s constitutional duties and skirts a state constitutional provision seemingly aimed at preventing the Senate from such action. The law, however, is murky in terms of its application and enforcement.
But not the hardball politics.
Democrats, led by Gov. McAuliffe, knew they had no chance to get a Democratic redistricting plan through the General Assembly any more than Republicans could hope to get a GOP proposal enacted over a certain gubernatorial veto. This stalemate had been preordained.
Why? Democrats believe their only chance to get another seat shaped for an African American is to have a federal court draft the required new district lines. Republicans know whatever plan the court approves will be less favorable to one or more of their 2016 candidates than the current one.
All parties acted within their constitutional authority. But Republicans may be overly concerned, and Democrats wildly optimistic, about the political consequences in the final, court-drafted plan.
Court cases suggest the governor would be wise to join with the attorney general and submit his own plan, saying someone has to speak for the people since the General Assembly did not. We further suspect House and Senate Republicans will submit their own plan, saying it would have been part of the record the court must consider had it not been for the irresponsible Democrats and one renegade Republican.
This would be a smart play, as Supreme Court cases require the judges to consider how the state viewed the interests at issue in creating congressional district lines. Will Democrats win their bet and get a second seat primed for an African American Democrat?
Very likely. This will then lead to another round of lawsuits and predictable partisan recriminations. The state’s leading editorial boards will then renew their calls for a non-partisan redistricting commission.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — the more things change, the more they remain the same.