Home Virginia Politics McDonnell’s Legacy Moment: Does He Have Wilder’s Guts?

McDonnell’s Legacy Moment: Does He Have Wilder’s Guts?


( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

In the modern history of Virginia, only one Democratic governor – Doug Wilder – has been forced to make the gut call on redistricting. In 1971, 1981, 2001 and 2011, Republican governors reigned during the constitutionally mandated redistricting year. These four GOP chief executives – Holton, Dalton, Gilmore and McDonnell – have basically used the redistricting process to increase the number of Republicans elected to the General Assembly. Within limits, such partisan redistricting is not only constitutional, but politically inevitable until the process undergoes fundamental change.  

Wilder, however, did something unprecedented, and still unappreciated today: instead of using the process to unfairly benefit Democrats, he instead did the right thing for the people of Virginia. There are those who say he had no choice given the Voting Rights Act. But as the person advising him on the politics, this is simply not an accurate statement of either the law or the politics. He had choices. But he choose to do the right thing despite incredible pressure from short-sighted Democratic Party leaders and activists.

At the time, I was the Chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. The Party leaders wanted me to fall in line and advise Wilder to support their plan. But the Governor needed my honest opinion. I had to choose.

Don’t get me wrong:  I got where the Democratic leadership was coming from. At the time, Republicans ran the U.S. Department of Justice. The Voting Rights Act and other laws aimed at ensuring minority voting rights were not popular in Virginia specifically, or the South generally. The level of the opposition is not appreciated from today’s vantage point, a generation later. Moreover the Old Guard had run the Virginia General Assembly for a long time. They had reason to believe the Republican Justice would back their redistricting play so as not to be seen as friendly to the VRA.

It was 200-proof politics, power first, the people second.

It is the game. Now, the GOP Senators, fearing their loss of power in 2015, are making the same play. It is likely to be affirmed by the GOP House in a vote this week…

Unless Gov. McDonnell has former Governor Wilder’s guts. If McD makes it clear he isn’t going to play along, then it is DOA.  


Back in 1991, Wilder was under great pressure from powerful Democratic forces to approve their plan, or at least agree to a plan to ensure Democratic control for not only the rest of the decade but probably longer.

THIS LAST POINT – the time dimension – is being missed in the current debate on the Watkins’ led Senate power grab due to the absence of Senator Henry Marsh [who has a seat Wilder told me to create for him].  

If the Watkins led power-grab is signed into law by the Governor and then survives legal challenges, IT IS DESIGNED TO ENSURE REPUBLICAN CONTROL OF THE 2021 REDISTRICTING PROCESS IF NOT UNTIL 2031! A Democratic Governor may, or may not, be able to stop it depending on the politics at the time.

THIS IS THE STAKES RIGHT NOW, not merely the 2015 state senate elections.

Doug Wilder understood the power of redistricting.

As did the Old Guard in the Democratic Party. As do today’s GOP Old Bulls.

To claim Governor Wilder had no choice is not only historically untrue, it is silly in the extreme in terms of real politics. We were in new territory, legally and politically. No one knew for certain.

The same now in 2013. Redistricting in 2013 a redistricting plan approved in 2012 is unprecedented in Virginia. The law is unclear, the Voting Rights Act and other considerations different than in 1991.

The GOP power play in 2013 is just another wrinkle of the Democratic power-play in 1991.

Why? If Wilder did the right thing, Democrats would lose Senate seats big time. Virginia had been growing especially in the GOP suburbs. Given the larger size of the Senate districts, any significant change in boundary lines would put a lot of Democratic Senators at risk under the best of circumstances. Given the deep recession that had hit Virginia’s budget harder than any other state on a percentage basis, the GOP young bloods were on the warpath, Wilder’s popularity down.

The Voting Rights Math added up this way: For every new majority-minority Senate seat created for an African-American Democrat, this figured to defeat at least  two white, often Old Guard, Democratic incumbents or a party replacement trying to hold that seat. If you think we have too much racially based voting now, it was worse in 1991.

The Old Guard redistricting plan passed by the Democratically controlled General Assembly called for two majority-minority Senate seats, which seemed to satisfy the Bush DOJ position on the Voting Rights Act.

Governor Wilder rejected their plan, and created 5. I backed him all the way, the only Democratic leader to do so. Party leaders were convinced the party’s control of the Senate would be lost for the first time ever except for the brief period after the Civil War when elections remained under federal control.

I disagreed: it would be close but we could hold on without rigging the system.

Bottom line: Despite the redistricting, the Democrats retained 57 seats in the House, the high water mark in the last generation, losing only a net of one, a seat we should have actually won admittedly. On the Senate side, we lost 8 seats, but two were due to candidates who thought they couldn’t lose. We held onto a 22-18 Senate majority, also the biggest in the last generation.

The Historic Point: Democratic Governor Doug Wilder did the right thing for Virginia. But it did cost the Democratic Party at lot of seats in the State Senate.

Wilder could have let General Assembly Democrats have their way, they surely offered plenty of quid-pro-quos either directly or by inference. They had been blocking many of his ideas.

But he stood on principle.  

Now comes Republican Bob McDonnell’s turn.

Governor McDonnell and his aides say this is his “legacy” Session of the General Assembly.

If Bob McDonnell wants a legacy, if he wants a defining moment, then what better test of character than to say NO to the GOP Senate redistricting power-grab, aimed giving them unwarranted and unprincipled control of the GA for the next generation.

Yes, he can cut a political deal for his transportation plan and let the courts clean up the mess if they have the guts.

Or McDonnell can do what a Governor is supposed to do: Put the interests of the state ahead of his party.

It is a legacy moment.

It’s all on you Bobby Boy.


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