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Letter to the Editor: Despicable Maneuver

To the Editor:

On Martin Luther King Day, Henry L. Marsh III, who grew up in segregated Virginia, became a civil rights lawyer who worked on school desegregation cases who went on to become Richmond’s first African American mayor and has been a state senator since 1991, went to Washington, D.C. to see the nation’s first African American president sworn in for the second time to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Amazingly, while he was in Washington, D.C., all 20 Republicans in our state senate felt this was the right time to sneak through legislation to redistrict the body in which they serve in order to shift the current balance of 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats to grab control of the body mid-decade and reduce the voting representation of African Americans.

They did this despite that fact that they needed to drastically amend a pre-existing bill to do so. Normally, only technical and minor changes are allowed in such instances. As a result, this substantially different bill never received a hearing or discussion on the floor of the Senate.

Most importantly, as my state delegate, Rob Krupicka, pointed out in a message he sent to his constituents on Friday, Jan. 25: Virginia's Constitutional language on redistricting was approved by the voters of Virginia just a few years ago. It clearly states that redistricting shall take place "in the year 2011 and every 10 years thereafter." Just last year the Richmond Circuit Court ruled off-year redistricting unconstitutional.

Thus, this bill is blatantly illegal. Adding insult to illegality, the Republicans behind this scheme are claiming to be helping African Americans by gerrymandering a new district that would be majority African American, even as they never consulted their leadership or their community and while their plan robs African Americans of real representation given that they are aligned with the Democratic Party.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this plan is no better than what African Americans lived through during Virginia’s tragic era of Jim Crow with the use of poll taxes and other techniques to prevent them from being represented in government, as well as more recent Republican policies to disenfranchise African Americans by creating unfair barriers to voting in states all over our nation — not to mention their treatment of the first African American President in our nation's history.

This bill has four steps to go before actually becoming law and being challenged in court for its violation of the Virginia Constitution.

Republican Speaker William J. Howell could refuse to put the bill before the House of Delegates because of the manner in which it was amended in the Senate. The House could vote it down. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell could refuse to sign it. The Justice Department could rule that it is violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Howell and McDonnell claim not to have known about this power play in the Senate. Whether or not that is true, they have been faced with a moment of truth and failed. Howell has put off a decision on the bill for a short time and McDonnell has failed to immediately denounce the bill and pledge to veto it if it reaches him. They are both weighing the politics of the bill and whether they might get away with this despicable maneuver.

At a time when our nation is remembering the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and, ironically, the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, is shown in the movie “Lincoln” issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and fighting to ensure full citizenship for African Americans would last by passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Republican Senate, Bill Howell, and Bob McDonnell are providing an unwanted educational moment of their own as to why that war and that amendment were so essential.

Paul Friedman

Alexandria