Lawyers for House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell are making a surprising argument to defend against an accusation of racial gerrymandering: Raw, partisan politics targeting Democrats fueled the 2011 redistricting process as much as race. A trial began Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on the constitutionality of Virginia’s most recent drawing of legislative boundaries in the House of Delegates. The lawsuit alleges the redistricting plan illegally packs African-American voters into 12 legislative districts. As a result, according to the suit, black voters’ influence in the remaining 88 districts is diminished. A panel of three federal judges is overseeing the trial and must decide whether race was the overriding factor in drawing the lines. Such a finding would increase the chances that the boundaries would be found unconstitutional. If, on the other hand, the judges decide that race was just one of many factors that went into the redistricting, it is more likely that the boundaries would pass muster.
As a result, lawyers for Howell, R-Stafford, and the House of Delegates are emphasizing efforts in redistricting to target and squeeze vulnerable Democrats when opportunities presented themselves.
“You have to be in the political thicket,” lawyer Mark Braden told the judges as the trial began. “You have to watch a little bit of the sausage making.”
Specifically, they say they targeted Democrat Robin Abbott, who had defeated Republican Philip Hamilton in a Newport News area district in 2009. The plan was drawn up to throw Abbott into a district with Republican Glenn Oder. Republicans wanted to tilt the district to benefit Oder as much as possible, so they altered its lines to move black precincts into a minority-majority district represented by Democrat Mamye BaCote.