Va. House, Senate OK Legislative Lines

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    NBCWashington.com

    The General Assembly enacted new lines for state legislative districts Monday, opening a politically and possibly racially charged debate over the minority composition of Virginia's 11 congressional districts.

    Plans for the Virginia House and Senate both preserve incumbents, give majority parties an edge in this fall's elections and lump some lawmakers into a district together in a political game of musical chairs.

    It passed on a party-line vote of 22-17 in the Senate with one Republican absent, and 85-9 in the House. It now awaits review and amendments from Gov. Bob McDonnell.

    And when he's done, the bill faces the Justice Department's scrutiny to ensure that the plans don't dilute minority voting strength.

    Minority representation will be largely at issue when the House and Senate debate competing congressional reapportionment maps beginning Tuesday.

    One, drawn by Republicans in the GOP-ruled House and with the sign-off of all 11 Virginia congressmen, features a single majority-black district whose minority population gets even more concentrated than it is now.

    The other, by the Senate's Democratic majority, would create two Democratic-voting districts in southeastern Virginia _ a majority minority with a black voting-age population of 51.1 percent, and an adjacent "minority opportunity" district with a 41.6 percent black voting age populace. It's the type of plan Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus envisioned when publicly called for two minority influence districts late last month.

    Some black legislators say Del. Bill Janis's GOP House plan cherry-picks precincts with the highest concentrations of black voters into a new 3rd Congressional District. The 56.3 percent black population of that redrawn district is far more than U.S. Bobby Scott, Virginia's first black congressman since Reconstruction, needs to assure re-election and was done to make all of the adjacent districts whiter and more Republican.

    But some black lawmakers grumble that Locke's bill could endanger Scott, now in 19th year in Congress. Scott and other Democratic leaders note that the popular incumbent has been elected from majority white districts and could easily do so again.

    Democratic critics of Janis's plan say it amounts to "packing" and contend it violates the Voting Rights Act by denying African-American voters in any other U.S. House district the ability to elect their choice of candidate. They note that while one in five Virginians is black, only one of its 11 members of Congress is.

    "My plan will be upheld because under the law, there can be no retrogression of minority district," Janis said, defending his plan that makes the voting age population of Scott's district even greater than the district's current overall black population.

    "Sure the Justice Department will look at it. Justice will look at every one of these bills," said Janis, R-Henrico, after the House Privileges and Elections Committee endorsed his bill and sent it to a full House floor debate Tuesday on a 17-2 vote.

    Its Senate rival is the chief Democratic plan sponsored by Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton.

    Geographically, it compresses Scott's current serpentine, 100-mile-long district into an area that encompasses all of Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth and Williamsburg on the Peninsula plus dozens of precincts in Norfolk. While his ratio of minority voters decreases, the area his new district covers voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2009's statewide elections.

    Locke's lines, however, threaten the seat of Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Chesapeake. Not only does it now take in several largely black localities such as Petersburg and Emporia, it also voted about 60 percent in favor of Democrats in the elections two years ago.

    The competing congressional maps could yield a legislative stalemate. But lawmakers aren't under time pressure to compete the U.S. House districts. The next congressional elections are more than a year away in 2012.

    Even if Locke's plan doesn't pass, it establishes a legislative record for the Justice Department to consider in its review, or that could be part of a lawsuit over the level of minority representation under the Voting Rights Act.