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Free Lance-Star reporter Chelyen Davis covers Virginia government.

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Senate GOP surprise move to redraw district lines; Dems cry foul

In a maneuver that surprised and outraged Democrats, Senate Republicans on Monday pushed through legislation to redraw the state Senate districts.

The move could threaten passage of transportation funding reform this session, as Senate Democrats vowed not to support it in retaliation for the redistricting effort.

The General Assembly did its decennial redistricting in 2011, after the 2010 census. At that time, Democrats controlled the state Senate. They lost control in the next election.

The Republicans’ new plan would put Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, into the same district, and create a new majority-minority district in Southside Virginia.

It passed on a party-line vote of 20-19, with Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, absent to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Republicans rejected an effort from Democrats to postpone the vote for a day.

Had Republicans waited for Marsh’s return, the proposal likely would have failed on a tied vote. While Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can vote to break ties, spokeswoman Ibbie Hedrick said he “has grave concerns about the adoption of a revised redistricting plan at this point in the process, and it is not something that he supported.”

Hedrick said Bolling fears the redistricting maneuver “could set a dangerous precedent for future redistricting actions.”

Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, the proposal’s author, said it would protect the state from litigation for not creating an additional minority-majority district when lawmakers had the chance.

“We were open to being challenged at any time,” he told reporters.

Watkins said he has studied the Southside region for the past year and feels it meets the legal criteria for having a majority-minority district.

There is a large and reasonably compact African American community. They are politically cohesive. And the racial groups demonstrate polarization in voting preferences,” Watkins said on the Senate floor. “Therefore, it is necessary for this new district to be created.  And, our failure to do so would leave us vulnerable to litigation to force the creation of this district.”

He also said it reduces the number of split precincts and localities. His proposal was amended onto a bill from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, which made technical changes to House district.

Other Republicans deferred to Watkins to talk about the redistricting plan.

But Democrats said Watkins’ proposal was nothing but a bald-faced political move by Republicans to redraw the districts in a way that’s more favorable, statewide, to the GOP.

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, called it “the biggest railroad” in her time in the General Assembly.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, said he doesn’t think it’s legal for Republicans to try to redraw the maps now, in 2013, when he said courts have upheld laws referring to redistricting only in 2011.

Barker said Watkins’ plan doesn’t just shift Deeds and Hanger and make a new district — it moves the other districts’ lines around as well.

“It’s fundamentally changing district after district,” he said.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said his district would lose 20 precincts and gain 20 new ones.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said he doesn’t think it’s legal either. But, he said, it removes any incentive for Senate Democrats to support Gov. Bob McDonnell’s push to reform transportation funding.

“Transportation is no longer alive. It is gone,” Saslaw said. “If they are going to play these kinds of games … transportation is dead.”

Watkins has been pushing his own transportation funding reform plan. He said if Saslaw doesn’t want to support it now,” that’s up to him.”

Deeds — who beat Hanger years ago to win a House seat at the beginning of his career — noted that a lot would have to happen for the Republican’s redistricting plan to take effect. The House would have to pass it, the governor to sign it.

But it has already ruined any effort to rebuild the Senate camaraderie that was damaged by last year’s fighting between two parties with 20 Senate seat, he said.

“There’s no comity,” Deeds said. “It just rips asunder the fabric of the Senate.”

Like Saslaw, Deeds said the redistricting proposal means Democrats have no reason to support Republican transportation bills. And, Deeds said, perhaps that’s what some Republicans wanted.

“It throws into jeopardy everything they need that twenty-first vote for,” he said. “This is a deliberate attempt on the part of those people to undermine our ability to get a transportation bill done.”

In a statement, Hedrick said Bolling, too, worries that the redistricting effort “could create a hyper-partisan atmosphere that could make it very difficult for us to address other important priorities like transportation and education reform. In order to address these important issues, we need Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of Virginia, and we cannot allow divisive partisan issues such as this to make it more difficult for us to address these issues.”

Locally, Watkins’ bill would make several changes to Senate districts. The 28th district, now held by Sen. Richard Stuart, would regain all of the Northern Neck, while shedding parts of Prince William County. Some of the Prince William and Fauquier territory would be moved into the 17th district, now held by Sen. Bryce Reeves.

The 17th would cover all of Culpeper and Orange counties, while Spotsylvania would be split only between the 17th and the 4th, now held by Sen. Ryan McDougle. All of Louisa County would be in the 22nd district.

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