A Republican-authored congressional redistricting bill that has divided black legislative Democrats won final House passage Friday and now moves to a state Senate under new Republican rule, where equally swift approval is expected next week.
Friday's vote took just seconds and came less than 48 hours after the 2012 General Assembly was gaveled into session -- reflecting that the measure is a Republican priority on the fast track to enactment. The bill, stymied in the Senate while Democrats dominated last year, could be signed into law by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell within a week.
The congressional remapping plan provides for just one majority-black U.S. House district out of 11 in Virginia, even though one in every five Virginians is black. It won final passage on a vote of 74-21 with nine Democrats joining Republicans in supporting the bill. All votes against the bill came from Democrats. Five delegates (three Republicans and two Democrats) did not vote.
The vote and debate on the bill a day earlier exposed a passionate rift within the Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats.
Most Democrats prefer an alternative with one majority African-American district and a second “minority-influence” district with a strong black voting-age population.
Republican Delegate Robert B. Bell's bill boosts the black percentage of the state's lone majority black district -- U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott's 3rd District -- from 56 percent now to nearly 60 percent. This is done chiefly by moving mostly black precincts from adjacent districts into the 3rd, leaving the neighboring districts with more white voters and more Republican-friendly.
Delegate Jennifer McClellan, who opposed the bill, denounced it during floor debate Thursday as “packing.” She contends it violates the federal Voting Rights Act, passed during the civil rights struggle to combat Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black voters in the South.
Bell said the opposite is true. He said the bolstered minority population of Scott's district adheres to the intent of the 1965 law, which forbids any dilution of black voting strength.
Legislative Black Caucus chairwoman Sen. Mamie Locke disagreed, criticizing Republicans and some black fellow Democrats in a blistering memo that evoked comparisons to slavery.
“Well over 300 years ago, slave owner William `Willie' Lynch devised a plan through which he assured Virginia slave owners that if they adopted his practices, slaves/black people could be controlled for centuries,” Locke, D-Hampton, said in her five-paragraph memo. “It seems that this prediction is alive and well in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in 2012.”
Locke, who sponsored the competing bill to establish two heavily minority districts last year, said five black members of her caucus did a disservice to their constituents by voting for “a redistricting plan that says they, as 20 percent of the Virginia population, are entitled to only one African-American representative.”
“Why would some of us say that minorities should be packed into one district and Republicans should be given a pass on eight of 11 districts?” Locke said.
Delegate Kenneth Alexander, D-Norfolk, said he saw no sense endangering the secure minority-dominant district that Scott holds should the popular, 10-term congressman decide not to seek re-election at some point. Besides, Alexander said, he may be interested in someday succeeding Scott, 64, and wants as friendly a district as possible.
If the state is to create another minority district, he argued, it should be in the fast-growing suburbs of Washington, D.C., with large Asian, Latino and other immigrant communities.
Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, called Bell's bill insensitive and likened it to “putting black folks on a plantation.” And she was so unhappy with Alexander and other Democrats who supported the bill Friday that she threatened Friday to challenge Alexander in a primary if Scott vacates the seat and Alexander seeks it.