By Peter Galuszka
Just how out of control are Virginia’s Republicans?
This week’s redistricting coup attempt staged by prominent Republicans John Watkins and his cohort Thomas K. Norment in the otherwise evenly divided state Senate is as cynical as it is destructive.
On Monday, the pair took advantage of the absence of a key Democratic senator who was attending Barack Obama’s inauguration to spring a plan to redo a redistricting map approved two years ago. Using their temporary 20-19 advantage and with no prior notice, they rammed through their self-serving changes. The redistricting plan was thought to have been settled in 2011.
Kept out of the loop was Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who said that the uprising is likely to kill any chances for bipartisanship in this year’s General Assembly. Since it is the last legislative session for the one-term governor, the now poisonous atmosphere will make it very hard to move through new legacy programs such as his innovative but controversial scheme to dump the gasoline tax.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is fast emerging as a new power broker and possible independent candidate for governor, was told of the plan two weeks ago by Norment, the Senate majority leader, and promptly said no thanks.
Democrats say that the redistricting plan would weaken their control in six districts. Watkins has claimed that creating a new and mostly minority district in south central Virginia would help the state withstand challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act. The new district would include some of the lowest-income counties and cities in the state. But why hasn’t anyone heard of this plan before now?
The episode is bizarre on several levels.
First, stage-managing the plan on the day Henry Marsh, an African-American Democrat who happens to be a key member of the state Senate, is absent attending the inauguration of a president who happens to be African-American stinks of racism. Launching the plan without notice or hearings is the kind of thing that used to happen in Richmond back in the Old South days.
The state GOP has been especially unkind to McDonnell, who may have his faults but still rates well in polls. His hopes for a slot on Mitt Romney’s ticket were dashed after hard-right Republican legislators last year launched their hideous plans to require women seeking abortions to undergo mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. Virginia ended up the butt of jokes on late-night television. The result: No vice presidential slot for McDonnell.
Hard-line Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s run for governor is a pencil in the eye of the GOP establishment, which had all but promised Bolling the candidacy.
Now you have fairly responsible types such as Watkins, a veteran Republican who opposed the transvaginal travesty and is generally sensible, conjuring up coups.
Part of the problem is that the GOP still hasn’t figured out how to deal with the Tea Party movement that set the agenda a couple of years ago. Tea Party influence is still formidable even if it was greatly diminished by Democratic wins in last year’s election.
For their part, Virginia Democrats still haven’t figured out how to play the GOP mayhem and a weaker Tea Party to their own advantage. Until they do, expect more palace coups.