The only thing predictable about a “short” session is that the days will be full and pass by quickly. We are more than a third of the way through the 46 day session and had real fireworks this past week. On Monday, the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day and the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, since the Virginia Constitution calls for the General Assembly to be in session, we were hard at work considering bills and resolutions. All legislation has importance to someone, but overshadowing those bills was a tactic that was sprung on the Senate at the close of business on Monday afternoon.
The Virginia Constitution stipulates that redistricting occurs every ten years. In fact, the Constitution was amended in 2004 to provide specifically that redistricting is to occur in 2011 and every ten years thereafter. So, you can imagine the surprise of every Democratic Senator in the chamber on Monday afternoon when the Republicans put forward a new redistricting plan. The plan dramatically redraws the state, thrusting about 45 percent of Virginians into new Senatorial Districts. Under the auspices of the creation of a new African-American majority district stretching from Danville to Petersburg, Republic Senator John Watkins of Powhatan offered the plan. What he didn’t tell the body in specific terms, but what we soon learned, is that the plan also packed African-American votes even more tightly into other minority- majority districts, diminished Democratic strength in districts that are represented currently by Democratic state senators, strengthened Republican support in most of the districts currently represented by Republicans, and paired me and Senator Emmett Hanger in the same district.
The new Republican plan cuts the 25th Senatorial District into four pieces. Senator Hanger and I would share a district that would include Bath, Highland, Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta, western Albemarle, and Charlottesville. The bulk of Albemarle County would be represented by Senator Tom Garrett; Nelson would be represented by Senator Steve Newman; and the Alleghany Highlands and the Rockbridge area would be represented by Senator Ralph Smith. The plan was a premeditated, deliberate attempt to circumvent the Constitution of Virginia and public input. Since the Republicans were unable to garner Lt. Governor Bolling’s support, they waited until a day when a Democratic Senator would be absent.
Senator Henry Marsh was the first African-American mayor of the City of Richmond. He is one of the founding members of the Martin Luther King Commission in Virginia and is a revered leader in the civil rights movement. Each member of the Senate knew that Senator Marsh would be in Washington, DC to attend the inauguration. The Republicans used his absence to ram their unconstitutional redistricting plan through the Senate by tacking the proposal onto House Bill 259, which made minor adjustments to the House districts. That bill has now gone back to the House, where the Speaker is considering whether the Senate’s amendments are germane to the bill’s original purpose. If the Speaker rules the amendments germane, the full House will likely approve the amendments. The bill will then go to the Governor for his consideration. As he does with every bill, the Governor may sign, veto, or amend the legislation.
This effort at redistricting raises significant Constitutional issues, and the bill has a long way to go before it takes effect. For now, at least through 2015, I will continue to represent my constituents in the 25th District. The only thing this bill did to me is force my hand on whether to run for reelection. I thought I had at least another year before making a decision. I have told my Republican colleagues that they can beat me if they will, but they are not going to redistrict me out of the Senate. I will be a candidate for reelection somewhere in Virginia. I have tried to maintain a sense of humor about the whole process.
Another Virginia tradition was caught up in the redistricting tactic, thanks in part to significant national media attention. The 21st of January is the birthday of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Traditionally, the Senator who represents Lexington offers words of remembrance and makes a motion to adjourn in General Jackson’s honor and memory on that day. Similarly, on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, the Senator from Arlington makes the same sort of recognition and motion. My colleague, Senator Barbara Favola, made her speech recognizing General Lee last week. Also last week, my colleague, Senator Marsh paid tribute to Dr. King on his birthday recognizing his tremendous contributions. Because of the notoriety of what the Senate Republicans did this past Monday, a typically unnoticed tradition in the Senate has garnered scrutiny. My remarks on Stonewall Jackson were in a similar vein to those made by every Senator whose district has included Lexington for as long as I can remember. The timing was pure happenstance and not meant in any way to take away from the celebration of Martin Luther King Day.
In the weeks that remain for the 2013 session of the General Assembly we have major public policy decisions to make. For the first time in a long time, I feel we are close to reaching a compromise on transportation. We will need to get this redistricting business behind us so we can move forward on the issues of importance, such as transportation, education, public health, and public safety. It is my hope that the actions on Monday have not poisoned the atmosphere so much that we will not be able to work together. We have too much to do to let partisan rancor bring Washington-style politics to the Virginia General Assembly.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can be of service to you, or if you would like information about this process, please contact us at [email protected] or (804) 698-7525.