RICHMOND, Va. -- The first day of a special session of the Virginia General Assembly was marked by partisan bickering over how and when to redraw 11 House of Delegates districts a federal court ruled unconstitutional because they were racially gerrymandered. Five of the 11 districts where the court said lawmakers "predominately relied of race" in constructing are in the Richmond-Petersburg region.
Governor Ralph Northam (D) called the special session ahead of an October 30th deadline the federal court set for lawmakers to redraw the legislative districts.
House Democrats rolled out a proposal sponsored by Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) that would change the boundaries to 29 of 100 House of Delegates districts. Party leaders said the map was designed to pass constitutional muster without considering the racial make up of voting precincts, and added Democrats are the only party to bring forward a plan to fix the maps despite the court ordered deadline.
Thursday, Republicans rebuked the proposal, calling a "hypocritical partisan power grab." GOP leadership said Bagby's plan turns five districts currently held by Republicans to favor Democrats and makes four seats currently held by Democrats safer. House Republicans even accused Democrats of carving out Del. John McGuire's house when redrawing the 56th district so that he would have to move to continue to represent the district.
The partisan fight spilled out on the floor of the House of Delegates during session Thursday.
"To say that the current position of our democratic colleagues is hypocritical is an understatement," said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). "To say that it does not do what they represent that it does is absolutely factual."
"We are dealing with the hand we have been dealt. The court on June 26th found these districts to be unconstitutional," said Del. Charniele Herring, Democratic caucus chairman. "There's complete silence over on the other side of the aisle, nothing. It took a court order to say to you all, 'what are you going to do?'"
Governor Northam released a statement Thursday afternoon calling on Republicans to come up with their own proposal.
"It's easier to criticize than it is to construct and the court offered the General Assembly the opportunity to remedy these unconstitutional, racially gerrymandered districts months ago. If Republicans are going to criticize the constitutional map offered by Democrats today, they should produce their own," Northam said.
Earlier in the day, the non-partisan redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 announced the formation of a citizen committee that would draft a constitutional amendment to "ensure fair, non-partisan redistricting after the 2020 Census." The bipartisan committee includes former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the director of the commission that drafted Virginia's current constitution A.E. Dick Howard, and former Minority Leader Ward Armstrong.
On the House floor, Del. Stephen Heretick (D-Portsmouth) voiced his support for non-partisan redistricting reform, and scolded his own party for continuing to gerrymander legislative maps with their current plan.
"It's gerrymandering in response to gerrymandering," Del. Heretick said. "Let's be honest Mr. Speaker, turning around and doing to your side exactly what Republicans did to us in 2011 doesn't make this Commonwealth any better."
Speaker of the House Kirk Cox has asked the federal courts to stay the Oct. 30 deadline while their appeal of the decision makes its way to U.S. Supreme Court. The court has not ruled on the stay request.