What happened in the Virginia General Assembly this week is a result of gerrymandering – the political process by which the political parties take care of themselves and ignore their constituents.
The events – a state Supreme Court justice and a federal court order to redraw U.S. House districts both ignored, and political parties bickering over whether the legislature is adjourned – have their origin years ago.
This version of the story begins with the state’s Senate and House of Delegates agreeing to each other’s district maps after the 2010 census. At the time, Democrats held a 22-18 margin in the Senate; Republicans controlled 61 of 100 House seats. With a new House map, Republicans in the 2011 elections achieved a two-thirds majority – 67 seats. Despite their confidence in the Senate map, Democrats lost two seats, and the 20-20 split threw control the Republicans, who held the lieutenant governor’s gavel. The Democratic sweep of statewide races in 2013 returned control to them – but only temporarily: In 2014, a Democratic senator quit to take a seat on a GOP-controlled state commission, and the Republican elected in the special gave them a 21-19 advantage.
It bears noting that the General Assembly last spring passed a bill to swap some Senate precincts, with the expected effect of solidifying GOP control of one district. But Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed the bill.
Back to the U.S. House districts (which I wrote about in February). The House of Delegates refused to consider redistricting in 2011, betting that Senate Republicans, with a GOP lieutenant governor, would take power in November, allowing complete control of the process in 2012. And that’s what happened. The Assembly ignored Governor Bob McDonnell’s citizen commission on redistricting and further solidified the GOP’s 8-to-3 domination in the House. Five of 11 winners in 2012 drew at least 60 percent of the vote; eight drew at least 60 percent in 2014, including Democrat Bobby Scott, who was unopposed.
Last October, a three-judge federal panel rejected the map of Scott’s Third District, finding it impermissibly racially gerrymandered: Black voters comprise 57 percent, thus diluting the power of black voters generally. Black voter makeup in surrounding districts ranges from 15 percent to 32 percent. (The dissenting judge in the 2-1 decision wrote that incumbent protection had been the motive, not diminishing the power of black voters.) In June the panel ordered the legislature to draw new maps by September 1.
Thus McAuliffe set the date for the redistricting session – August 17. That irritated the Assembly’s GOP leaders, who wanted to run out their court appeals first. When McAuliffe on July 27 made a recess appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court, they saw a chance to get even. (A recess appointment is subject to legislative approval, and according to every press account I’ve read, the legislature has always confirmed the governor’s court appointments.) The GOP’s leaders, Senator Thomas K. Norment Jr. and House Speaker William J. Howell, announced August 2 that their caucuses would vote to replace Justice Jane Marum Roush, the first woman on the high court, with a choice of their own (a power not subject to veto). They griped that the governor hadn’t consulted them. (Under their plan Roush, who had served with distinction since 1993 as a Fairfax County circuit judge, would be out of a job.)
When the Assembly met August 17, a retiring GOP senator, decrying gotcha politics, voted against the confirmation of Roush’s replacement, Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. (an African-American whose record also is without blemish). The Democratic lieutenant governor broke the tie to defeat Alston’s appointment. Watkins then voted with the Democrats to adjourn the special session, leaving its main business – redrawing congressional maps – undone.
Meanwhile the House insists that it remains in session and that the Senate’s adjournment is unconstitutional: Therefore Roush is ineligible for another recess appointment; thus the seat would stand vacant. As for redistricting, that task falls to a federal court, barring a compromise by the political branches. If pigs could fly.
None of this has anything to do with serving the people. It’s more evidence of the corrosive power of gerrymandering: both parties pressing advantages, failing to talk, picking fights, and feeding the ire of their ever-safer voter bases.
It’s all about the base: Nothing in Virginia’s demographics point to a state House overwhelmingly controlled by the GOP, or a U.S. House delegation that is 8 to 3 Republican. Democrats have won the last three U.S. Senate elections and the last two presidential elections, and hold all three statewide posts. Aggregate voting for U.S. House seats was Republican by 2 percent in 2012, 14 percent in the 2014 off-year. The state Senate is probably representative of an increasingly purple state, with urban areas overwhelmingly blue and swaths of rural pinkish to red.
Virginia boasts of having the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, dating to the 1619 election of the House of Burgesses in Jamestown. For decades state politicians lauded themselves for their “Virginia way,” a presumed remnant of Jefferson’s noblesse oblige. The Commonwealth with four of the first five presidents didn’t need ethics rules because the honor of service (current pay $18,000 a year) was the ethic. Those days are gone. The last governor is exhausting is final legal appeals, hoping to avoid prison on 11 federal counts of conspiracy, bribery and extortion.
“If we do this, all the cups in the cupboard are broken,” Democratic Senator A. Donald McEachin told The Washington Post before the vote on Judge Alston. “There are no more customs, usages or practices of the Senate that are worth a hoot.”
In Virginia, as across the Potomac, the new practice is to screw the other side, and let the constituents be damned. That’s not the problem, however. The problem is a constituency that shows the same disrespect for democratic principles and plain old courtesy in the civic sphere. Until We the People shift, it’s unlikely our representatives will either.