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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Virginia's Redistricting Plan Tests Bush's Pledge Of More Diverse GOP
By JACKIE CALMES and GREG HITT
August 30, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Virginia has just submitted to the federal government its proposed new map of congressional districts based on the 2000 Census. But it's more than a map: It also is a test of President Bush's promise of "a different kind of Republican Party" -- a more racially diverse one.
Mr. Bush's Justice Department has until mid-October to decide whether the Virginia map complies with the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect minority voters and to see that minority candidates have a chance to win elections. Democrats say the map doesn't comply; Republicans say it does.
At the root of the parties' split are their very different answers to the question of what is in minority voters' best interests. The GOP says minorities should be concentrated in select districts to ensure they are likely to be represented by a minority-group member in Congress -- an arrangement that also has bolstered Republican strength in nearby districts. Democrats argue minorities should be spread among more districts, in numbers sufficient to perhaps elect more minorities, but at least enough to force white officeholders -- Democrats, they hope -- to heed their interests.
The Bush administration hasn't tipped its hand publicly. But officials privately have indicated that the Justice Department likely will side with Virginia -- and the Republican Party -- by taking a stand that dates to Mr. Bush's father's administration.
This racial divide is the biggest issue in American politics' single biggest contest: The once-a-decade effort, required under the Constitution, to reapportion and redraw congressional districts based on a new census. The resulting maps will determine as much as any other factor which party wins control of Congress in next year's midterm elections.
Seven states aren't involved in redistricting; because of small populations, they have only a single House member elected statewide. Of the 43 states that do redistrict, not all face voting-rights issues for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians or other minorities.
With Statistical Sampling Off-Limits, the Census Bureau Turns to 'Imputing'
But plenty do -- enough that the outcome of House districts' racial composition is critical to determining which party will wield power. Most minorities, and especially African-Americans, tend to vote Democratic. Just a six-seat loss would cost the GOP its House majority next year.
Most of the 435 House districts aren't competitive; roughly half of these noncompetitive districts favor Democrats and half Republicans. The two parties have managed to draw the districts that way. So in the few dozen "swing" districts that tip the balance of power, the share of Democratic minority voters can be pivotal.
Sixteen states, including Virginia, are covered all or in part by the voting-rights law's requirement to get federal clearance for any changes that affect voting, including redistricting. Earlier this month Virginia was the first of those to submit its map to the Justice Department.
After the 1990 census, the first Bush administration demanded so-called majority-minority districts to group minority voters together and seek to ensure the election of minority candidates. Since then, the issue has been muddied by a string of Supreme Court rulings that race can't be the predominant factor in a district's political boundaries. Nonetheless, in the current remapping, the GOP argues that existing districts favoring minorities can't be redrawn in a way that reduces the percentage of minority voters.
As Republicans note, the post-1990 minority districts have helped boost the number of blacks in Congress to 37 from 17 and Hispanics to 19 from five. But Republicans gained in this process, too, because drawing the heavily minority districts typically left surrounding areas that were mostly white -- and Republican. With the maps' help, Republicans took over the House for the first time in 40 years.
Democrats insist they want to protect minority incumbents' districts. But rather than "ghettoize" minority voters, the Democrats want to spread some into adjoining districts. They cite recent elections showing black candidates don't need a majority-black district to win. And, they insist, even conservative white Democrats represent minorities' interests better than Republicans do.
Minority Democrats now tend to agree, which is a switch from a decade ago. Back then -- offering stark evidence of how redistricting's high stakes can turn enemies into friends -- black Democrats in a number of states made a mutually beneficial alliance with Republicans.
This year, Republicans have sought to rekindle the alliance "in every state where there are significant minority populations," says Don McGahn, general counsel at the House GOP's campaign committee.
Mr. McGahn acknowledges that some black and Hispanic incumbents have won re-election after Supreme Court rulings resulted in new districts with fewer minority voters, but he argues this was due in large measure to the fund-raising and media advantages they had as incumbents. "What happens when they retire?" he asks.
More broadly, a decade ago, the GOP's redistricting strategy was designed to add seats in the South, where minority concentrations helped the GOP weaken some vulnerable white Democratic incumbents and then capture their seats.
But the GOP has had far less luck this time getting blacks to align with it -- a fact that actually cheers some Republican conservatives, including some blacks, who say it shows the need for a new approach. These conservatives contend that while packing minorities into districts helps Republicans in the short term, it is harmful in the long run -- and contrary to Mr. Bush's campaign rhetoric promising a different, more diverse GOP.
"I think the time has come for the Republican Party to reject racial gerrymandering and learn how to attract black votes," says Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative group that opposes race-based policies.
These Republicans complain that many GOP members of Congress don't even try to represent minority interests because they don't have to. And minority voters never "get practice," as Mr. Clegg puts it, in voting for Republicans. One of the GOP's top black elected officials, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, argues that "the Republican Party will never, ever become a competitive party within the African-American community if Republicans never even have an opportunity to represent African-Americans."
But now Virginia Gov. James Gilmore -- Mr. Bush's pick to be chairman of the Republican National Committee -- has signed into law the Virginia plan, which seems to move in the opposite direction. The map, says Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat who is Virginia's only black member of Congress, "is a classic case of redistricting so Republicans can dilute the minority vote."
In Mr. Scott's southeast Virginia district, blacks make up about 57% of the voters. He was willing to represent fewer blacks in order to boost their voting population in an adjoining district to more than 40%. But the GOP plan that passed gives Mr. Scott more black voters and reduces them in the neighboring district to 34% from 39%. That would help white GOP Rep. Randy Forbes, who this summer narrowly won a special election against black Democrat Louise Lucas. She was among the blacks shifted into Mr. Scott's district.
Gilmore press secretary Lila White says the governor didn't take a position on the Virginia Legislature's map before he signed it. "The governor deferred to the General Assembly and simply forwarded that plan to the Justice Department," she says. Mr. Scott predicts a lawsuit against the plan, if it clears. Separately, so do the conservative groups.
Edward Blum, legal-affairs director at the conservative American Civil Rights Institute, has joined Mr. Clegg in writing to Democrat and GOP leaders nationwide to reject race-based redistricting. "I'd hoped it would strike a chord somewhere," he says. "But from what I've heard from the RNC, there's no change."