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Date published: 1/22/2013
RICHMOND--In a maneuver that surprised and outraged Democrats, Senate Republicans on Monday pushed through legislation to redraw the state Senate districts.
Democrats said the move is unconstitutional and threatened to sue. The action could thwart passage of transportation funding reform this session, as Senate Democrats vowed not to support it in retaliation for the redistricting effort.
Republicans said the new districts, if approved, would take effect for the 2015 state Senate elections.
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 majority-minority 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.
Other Republicans deferred to Watkins to talk about the redistricting plan.