Updated at 7:05 ET
Democrats in Virginia are accusing state Republicans of taking advantage of a prominent civil rights leader’s trip to Washington for the presidential inauguration to pull a “dirty trick” in order to take control of the state Senate in the 2015 elections.
The state Senate is split 20-20 between Republicans and Democrats. On Monday, while state Sen. Henry Marsh (D) — a 79-year-old civil rights veteran — was reportedly in Washington to attend President Obama’s second inaugural, GOP senators forced through a mid-term redistricting plan that Democrats say will make it easier for Republicans to gain a majority.
With Marsh’s absence, Senate Republicans in Richmond had one more vote than Senate Democrats and could push the measure through. The new redistricting map revises the districts created under the 2011 map and would take effect before the next state Senate elections in Virginia and would redraw district lines to maximize the number of safe GOP seats.
The move was a surprise to just about everyone, including Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell who has not yet pledged to endorse the new district lines, which must now go through the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and finally across McDonnell’s desk before final approval.
Some of the sparse details from the AP:
After the measure was sprung on unsuspecting Democrats, its sponsor, Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan, defended it as an effort to create another majority black Senate district. What he didn’t say is that it would create even more GOP-dominant districts.
Democrats are outraged.
“It goes against every tradition,” state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), the party’s 2009 gubernatorial nominee, told TPM Monday. “It was a dirty trick.”
Deeds’ office is still going through the new Senate maps pushed through by Republicans. Early reports indicate that Deeds may be among the hardest-hit. Regardless of whether the bill eventually becomes state law, Deeds said the Republican move could damage the fragile comity in the evenly-split chamber.
“Everything else we have to do this session is in jeopardy,” he said.
Details on Deeds’ district changes from the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
The new Republican map lumps into the same district Republican Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds of Bath.
McDonnell’s office is non-committal on the new maps, saying the GOP move came as news to McDonnell as well.
“The Governor was very surprised to learn that a redistricting bill would be voted on by the Senate today,” Tucker Martin, a spokesperson for McDonnell, told TPM. “He has not seen this legislation. If the bill gets to his desk he will review it in great detail at that time as he did with prior redistricting legislation.”
Politically, the move coud derail McDonnell’s ambitious agenda for his last year in office ahead of a rumored run for higher office. Optics-wise, the state Senate GOP’s move could reverberate far beyond the Commonwealth: after using the absence of civil rights leader Marsh to push through the legislative changes, the Senate adjourned in honor of a well-known Confederate general.
“On motion of Senator Stosch, the Senate adjourned in memory or [sic] General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson at 4:10 p.m. to convene Tuesday, January 22, 2013,” read the official minutes of the legislative day.
According to the progressive blog Blue Virginia, Deeds also took to the state Senate floor to speak about Jackson after the new district lines were approved.