July 15, 2011
With House Republicans and Senate Democrats still deeply divided over how to redraw Virginia's congressional districts, a major player in the dispute says the final say will probably belong to a federal judge anyway.
Del. Bill Janis, R-Henrico and the sponsor of the GOP-backed House of Delegates plan, says his side and the Democratic-led Senate are still far apart over divvying up heavily black voting precincts in southeastern Virginia.
In an Associated Press interview, he said he expects a vote before the Aug. 23 legislative primary elections - perhaps by the end of July - to enact his bill. That would start an automatic Justice Department review because Virginia is covered by the Voting Rights Act, passed 46 years ago to prevent the dilution of black voting strength.
The conflicting Senate and House reapportionment plans appear difficult if not impossible to reconcile because of profoundly different objectives.
"I have a hard time imagining any Democrat would vote for Bill Janis's incumbent protection plan because it betrays all of our values - fairness, compactness, contiguity," said Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico.
Janis said House Republicans and Senate Democrats aren't even on the same playing field.
"The example I'm using is if I wanted the first base line on my baseball diamond to be 60 feet and you wanted it to be 80 feet long, we could probably draw the line somewhere around 70 feet and make most of us happy," Janis said. "Where we start out is I'm on a baseball diamond and they're on a football field."
Janis's plan, blessed by all 11 incumbents, would retain the current GOP hold on eight of the seats and boost the voting-age African-American population in the only majority-black congressional district in Virginia.
"I didn't try to write a masterpiece, I didn't try to radically redraw the map. What we tried to do is tweak the existing map to reflect changes in population and demographics," Janis said.
The Democratic plan would reduce the black population of Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott's 3rd District from about 56 percent to about 45 percent, shifting many black voters from Scott's district into the adjacent 4th District, giving it a slight African-American voting-age majority. The plan's advocates say it allows the popular Scott to continue winning in his district while giving black voters the opportunity to elect their choice of candidate in the district now held by Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Republican.
Scott, the first black U.S. House member from Virginia since Reconstruction, is considering whether to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat retiring Democrat Jim Webb will vacate after 2012. Scott has not yet announced his decision.
McEachin called Janis' bill "an incumbent protection plan" that has been voted down once in the Democratic-led Senate and would face the same fate now.
"I respect Bill as a legislator, but I just don't see this passing the Senate," McEachin said.
Janis says that by watering down black voting strength in Scott's district, the Senate plan violates the desegregation-era anti-discrimination law.
Democrats, noting that 20 percent of Virginia's population is black yet only one of its 11 U.S. House members is, say the GOP plan amounts to "packing," or diminishing the opportunity for multiple minority candidates by segregating black voters into just one district.
Where Janis and McEachin agree is that the legislation will be fought out before the Justice Department. And Janis is mindful that Democratic President Barack Obama has put his stamp on the agency.
"This is the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed (1965) that we will go through redistricting when there is a Democratic president," Janis said.
In the 1971 reapportionment, Richard Nixon was president. Ronald Reagan occupied the White House during the 1981 redistricting. George H.W. Bush was president in 1991 when the maps were redrawn, and his son, George W. Bush, was the president for the 2001 redistricting. All were Republicans.