Third CD Struck Down — Can We Do Something Completely New?

It’s been a wild few days in Virginia.  Unfortunately, I’ve been way too sick this week to do much writing.  However, this opinion on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady striking down Virginia’s Third Congressional seat is simply too fat a target to pass up.

The conventional progressive reaction (quickly to Twitter!) is to blame the Richmond Republicans for “packing” African American voters into a district that went from a desirable 51% black majority to a nefarious 56%.  The purpose of that “packing” was clearly to strengthen the campaign odds of surrounding Republican congressmen.  And it resulted in a district that was a geographic joke — with no discernible connection between Richmond City and the precincts in Newport News and then blatantly carved out slices of Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth tossed in for effect.

But that’s not my issue.  My question is — why are we still using race at all in this process?

The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 after one hundred years of organized segregation, equalized access to the ballot for the first time in U.S. history in the Southern states.  It was a great and necessary law.  However, it wasn’t meant to predetermine the outcome of subsequent races or create “safe seats” for any group of politicians, liberal or conservative.

After the VRA became law, it was amended it to strike down districts where the minority vote was “diluted” so as to effectively silence their voice in selecting representatives.  This was to deal with legislatures, like Virginia, which simply split up the minority vote. Again, the purpose and effect of that change was salutary.

Then the Bush I administration did something both devious and brilliant that forever altered the landscape of Southern politics.  Starting after the 1990 census, the Bush DOJ refused to “pre-clear” Southern legislative maps unless they had “maxed out” the number of majority-minority legislative districts.  This process, done with no statutory mandate, led to a wholesale election of new minority members in 1991-1992 (good thing), while simultaneously tilting the legislative landscape to the Republicans.

In the short run, that was mostly good.  The South needed a good shakeup.  But the long run of that standard is highly flawed and, frankly, it’s got to change.

The result of the “Bush Push” for minority districts, and the continued application of that standard a generation later, is that states like Virginia, which are evenly divided or lean Democratic, can still have a legislature which is 68-32 Republican.  (There are other reasons, but this is far and away #1 in my opinion).

Oddly enough, the Democratic Party, flummoxed by the language of inclusion and their own parochial concerns, refused to object to this strategy either in 1991 or today — much less challenge its constitutionality.  Most political scientists are careful not to mention it when they talk about “gerrymandering” and Republican majorities.

That obliviousness has led to odd and self-defeating rhetoric, such as a 2011 debate in which Virginia House Democrats challenged the Republican map because it didn’t create enough minority districts.    Umm, guys?  Where is that result going to take you?

The stance is doubly bizarre in Virginia, in which Barack Obama has twice won state-wide.  (And nobody drew the boundaries of the Commonwealth with that in mind).  In Northern Virginia, “minority” candidates are elected all the time in white-majority seats.  And I have a hard time seeing anyone beat Don McEachin in Richmond or Louise Lucas in Portsmouth in a traditional, city-wide seat.

(Finally I’ve yet to hear a plausible way of acknowledging the existence of those families, numbering over 10% of the population, which draw from multiple cultures and colors.  Are you going to draw a Congressional line through the bedroom next?).

I’m sure this paltry cry for help will pass unnoticed or be rebutted by the scholarly edicts of $600/hr lawyers who use terms like “Gingles standard”, “retrogressivity” or the “five-part compactness test.”  Sorry, I’m not that smart.

But I did stay near a Holiday Inn Express last night.  And I know that this cynical format cannot last forever.  Hopefully, our kids won’t stand for it.

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Three Thoughts for this a.m.

This morning, I saw the latest scandal du jour in the VPAP clips.  Three thoughts on that.

1.  I’ve known Paul Reagan for fifteen years, as an official for Mark Warner, Jim Webb and now Terry McAuliffe.  (Back in the 90′s, he also served on the Consumer Protection Commission, where I used to appear as an attorney).  I regard him as one of the most honest and reputable people I’ve met in Virginia.  Nothing he said or suggested with Senator Puckett has changed my opinion.  I’ll leave it at that.

2.  The Puckett investigation is a road to nowhere and we’re slowly getting there.  While Phil’s actions in resigning just before a key vote were wrong (in my humble opinion), that is a matter between him and his friends.  It does not involve the U.S. Attorney.  This is not “McDonnell Part Deux.” There is nothing illegal about resigning from a public office to take a better-paid position, either with the private sector or with state government.  If it was, then you could lock up a lot of people in River City right now.

3.  The Puckett resignation was never about his taking a job with the Tobacco Commission or allowing a full-time judicial position for his daughter.  (Neither of which has happened to date).  It was about THE TIMING.  In June, the Senate budget still contained Medicaid expansion through “Marketplace Virginia,” but we needed a couple more weeks to enact that in the final state budget.  Phil’s resignation killed that opportunity.  It also cost us the majority — but that’s a separate issue.

In summary, this whole thing is getting absurd.  The Puckett resignation happened.  Each side took actions to make it happen (or keep it from happening).   Neither set of actions were illegal, although we can all agree that the situation was awkward — especially for Democrats who were blindsided and tried to react.

Regardless, the Governor and Paul were doing all they could to save a legislative measure (Medicaid expansion) which had great value to thousands of Virginians.  If that’s a scandal, well then lock us all up.

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VDOT Projects = on-time, on-budget

As the resident curmudgeon in Richmond, I spend a lot of time criticizing state government and its faults.  I don’t spend enough time pointing out when state agencies do  things right.  So let me address that flaw right now.

On Tuesday afternoon, I attended the annual “State of Transportation” in NoVA, which was hosted by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.  The presentation featured brief (five-minute) summaries by the various agency heads charged with moving people around in Virginia’s urban core.

The summary by Virginia’s Department of Transportation, ubiquitously known across the Commonwealth as “VDOT,” was especially well done.  After a major overhaul during the Warner administration, VDOT has emerged as a state agency which gets things done and, just as importantly, tells you what it’s doing.

In fact, in the past three years, VDOT has a record of completing its projects on time (95%) and on budget (98%).  Hard to argue with that kind of success.

In the 34th Senate District, VDOT is coordinating the final design of the I-66 improvement project, our #1 transportation need.  At the same time, it is managing local projects like the Stringfellow Road widening ($60M budget, completion date July 2015) and the Route 50 widening, beyond Rte. 28 ($100M budget, completion date November 2015).

Of course, VDOT’s major pending project in northern Virginia is the new “HOV/HOT lanes” along I-95 in Fairfax and Prince William.  The price tag is $1 billion for all improvements and the completion date is “early 2015.”  While that project does not physically touch the 34th Senate District, we all travel north/south on that corridor — and it’s the biggest parking lot in Virginia (especially going to the beach in the summer).

Did I get all this inside information because I’m a State Senator?  No.  I just checked VDOT’s public website which is www.vamegaprojects.com.  All the information is listed there, along with supervisors to call if you have any construction-related issues.

Construction projects take time.  They clog traffic.  But it’s a lot more tolerable when you know what’s going on — and when it will be over.

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