Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.

Senate Session

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

35 replies on “Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.”

  1. Thank you for this report. As the eyes of a hopeful nation focused on the celebrations in Washington DC, the Virginia of Massive Resistance reemerged under the cover of a holiday to honor an African American Hero to disenfranchise black voters. This is another shameful day in Virginia.

  2. “On motion of Senator Stosch, the Senate adjourned in memory or [sic] General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson at 4:10 p.m. to convene Tuesday, January 22, 2013,”


  4. Henry Marsh is a good man, I used to cover Richmond City Council when he was there. That being said in an article filled with partisan lead-slinging, it’s a bit curious to not mention that Gov Henry Byrd and the Democrat Party were the ones against desegregation..

  5. I’m shocked but not surprised at this under-handed tactic that the Republicans stratigically pulled off. It does seem unconstitutional and I’d like to see it challenged.
    Let’s see what the governor does with this.

  6. While I applaud the pedigree of Henry Marsh (what an amazing life he has lived!), I believe Dr. King said he desired his children to be known for their character not the color of their skin. Shame on you. It shouldn’t matter what color the man’s skin is. If he has character and is presenting a reasonable argument to the opposition, he is just as electable. For pete’s sakes, we have have black man as president. At what point do we stop the silliness of segregated voting districts? It is unjust in this day and age to separate districts so one type of person can be elected. Just draw straight lines and be done with it. Let the people chose and vote based on character. We have some amazing people in this state. Henry Marsh sounds like one of them.

    P.S. While I don’t like shady dealing, it’s time the Republican fought fire with fire. The Dems have been doing this silly sneaky stuff for years. No one is screaming Obamacare was never even fully READ before it passed. Geez.

  7. @Carlos Santovol it’s true that at the time when Civil Rights Movement was fighting the hardest that the political forces behind segregation were organized under the Democratic Party largely because a majority of southern whites were Democrats since the Republican Party represented the defeat of the Slaveholder’s Rebellion.

    However, during the post WWII years, Northern Democrats became, more and more, the party that supported Civil Rights, which eventually led to mass defections of the politicians called the Dixiecrats to the G.O.P.

    Under Richard Nixon, and his strategist Lee Atwater, the Republican Party embraced the infamous Southern Strategy which is a strategy of drawing on white racist stereotypes and resentment in order to win “The Solid South.” The same South that LBJ said was lost to the Democrats “For a generation” when he signed the Civil Rights Act.

    There’s a reason that in the early 21st century there is very little black support for the party that has institutional continuity with the party of the first black US elected officials, and Abraham Lincoln, and instead black voters, by huge margins, prefer the Democratic party despite the ugly parts of its history.

  8. Why on earth didn’t the remaining 19 Dems walk out? The Senate rules state 21 is a quorum. No Dems, no quorum. I’d love to see them hanging out in Maryland or West Virginia for a few weeks instead of countenancing this bullshit (wouldn’t try NC given the current gov’t there).

    On a more general note, when will we as a nation finally be done with gerrymandering? I don’t mean old maps for new maps. I don’t even mean special commissions to draw lines, even though that’s a genuinely large improvement over what we have here. I mean this — there is no real gerrymandering in Germany, or in New Zealand, because their constitutions insist that the percentage of each party in the legislature is equal to the percent of individual votes received.

    America is not a democracy — or for you dittoheads who insist on this non-distinction, a republic. America is governed by petty thugs holding onto their power by drawing funny shapes on a map and claiming this gives them legitimacy. It is no more legitimate than the divine right of kings. And it’s time for it to stop, everywhere.

  9. A few observations:

    (1) The Virginia Senate always adjourns in memory of Stonewall Jackson on January 21, regardless of which party controls the chamber. You may consult the minutes for January 21 in any year the Senate met on that day. 2010 and 2011 provide useful examples. (January 21 fell on a Saturday in 2012 and the Senate did not meet.) In those two years, the minutes reflect that the motion to adjourn was made by Senator Colgan, the Democratic president pro tem because Democrats had control. Moreover, the motion to adjourn is separate from the motion to adjourn in memory of a designated individual but latter is not recorded in the minutes. For example, Senator McEachin made the motion to adjourn in memory of Martin Luther King in 2010; the minutes attribute that motion to Senator Colgan as well. The motion to adjourn in memory of Stonewall Jackson is customarily made by Senator Hanger. Only the actual motion to adjourn, which incorporates the prior motion to adjourn in memory of the designated individual, is minuted. You may consult the video of the 2010 and 2011 sessions for confirmation.

    (2) Responding to Ms. Ramsey and Ms. Wagar, *Virginia Senate* Democrats have not done this type of thing for years. Virginia House Democrats did similar things when they controlled that chamber; Congressional Democrats and Republican alike have done similar things in Washington. But the Virginia Senate has rarely displayed this type of partisan maneuvering and when it has, it has been under Republican control. (Although, it is worth observing that Virginia Democrats tried to do it once but then-Senator Virgil Goode forced a power-sharing arrangement by threatening to deprive the caucus of its majority.) While it is tempting to say that what recently has been routine in Congress and the Virginia House justifies what happened in the Virginia Senate, doing so ignores the traditional differences in the bodies: it’s akin to saying that because one can expect a bar fight in a bar, one should expect one in church.

    (3) Responding to Rolf, under the Senate’s rules, the quorum is taken once: at the beginning of the day’s session. Once a quorum is established then, it is established for the day. Senate Democrats didn’t know what was afoot at the beginning of the session; they therefore couldn’t have boycotted.

    (4) Without saying that what the Senate Republican caucus did with this vote was justified or invited, I must point out that the Democrats fail to learn from their mistakes. Virtually the same thing happened last year with SB924, which turned into the “regulate abortion clinics like hospitals” bill because the Senate Democrats were not paying attention to the content of the bill as introduced and its amenability to amendment. Senate Democrats adopted a seemingly innocuous Senate bill that regulated nursing homes; when it went to the House, Republicans added an amendment regulating abortion clinics; Senate bills returning from the House are not sent back to committee, where controversial bills dealing with abortion typically are killed. By competently using the parliamentary process (albeit perhaps in a Machiavellian fashion), Republicans slipped one past the Democrats. As they say, “fool me once shame on you….” But what happened with this redistricting bill was very similar: a seemingly innocuous House bill dealing with redistricting was reported from Senate committee and amended on the floor to be quite controversial; now it will return to the House, where it will easily pass as amended if it is the will of the Republican majority there, never returning to the Senate to give Democrats a chance to kill it. “….fool me twice, shame on me.” Senate Democrats’ parliamentary incompetence was even more egregious in this case because the underlying bill had been passed by for the day every day since session began. Passing a bill by several days ALMOST ALWAYS signals a floor amendment; usually the floor amendment will be innocuous as affected parties and interest groups try to work out a compromise between opposing sides. But requests to pass a bill by for multiple days should at a minimum raise a red flag to anyone paying attention to the likelihood that the bill is going to change on the floor.

    (5) Senate Democrats have got to wise up. First, they must learn from their mistakes and pay more attention to the content of bills to predict which ones will be amenable to this practice. (Amendment must relate to the unamended subject matter of the bill.) Second, they have to impose consequences for this behavior. Senate Republicans out-maneuvered and out-muscled Senate Democrats at least twice last year: first with the rules amendments governing committee control and floor voting; then with SB924. Senate Democrats did nothing to penalize Senate Republicans. (They came close when they briefly blocked judicial elections, but they backed down.) If Senate Democrats are genuinely as pissed off about this as they should be, nothing should pass by unanimous consent for the rest of this session. Every motion, even the procedural motions, should be opposed by the whole caucus. No more routine approvals of the previous days’ legislative journals; no more waivers of constitutional readings of bills; no more routinely passing bills en bloc; and certainly no more routine votes to pass bills by for the day. Senate Republicans will respond by saying that Senate Democrats are throwing a temper tantrum–that’s what they said about the judicial election blockade last year, and last year’s threatened budget blockade that never materialized. But until Senate Democrats are ready to go to the mattresses, as they said in The Godfather, Senate Republicans will continue to walk all over them.

    (6) What should Senate Democrats go to the mattresses for? Well, it’s too late for last year’s rule change. It’s too late for last year’s SB924. Unless the governor intervenes (which he could do by pressuring the House Republicans to reject the Senate Republican’s version of the House bill, or by threatening to veto the amended bill if it passes), it’s too late for this redistricting bill. What Senate Democrats ought to do is pressure Senate Republicans to agree that the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) and committee staff has to notify both parties’ leaders of any floor amendment drafting requests. DLS drafts almost every bill and amendment and each committee has a DLS lawyer assigned to it; it’s possible but rare to get legislative language voted on without DLS involvement. It is almost impossible with redistricting because of the technical nature of the bills. And DLS certainly seems to have been in the loop here because they quickly had the new legislative district maps available on their website. However, DLS has an iron-clad rule of confidentiality: they don’t reveal a patron’s drafting request to anyone but the patron before the draft is introduced. Senate Democrats should block every routine procedural motion on the floor as described above until Senate Republicans agree that DLS and committee staff will from now on inform the leaders on both sides whenever a floor amendment is coming. Senate Democrats can’t stop what happens on the floor, but they can make it unbearably slow.

  10. Perhaps the Senate Democrats should just walk out for the rest of the session and not allow a quorum.

  11. I have been redistricted so as to break up a voting district . what can we do to make our gov’t responsive. what can we do to fight for representation. what a sad group of cheaters in the republican party.
    to quote the old gospel – “everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there”

  12. This shows that some people who were elected to political office still do not understand that a distinct majority in our country want to move beyond the divides that have held us back from being the nation we were meant to be, as described in the early documents drawn up by our predecessors. We need to use our voices and our voting rights to get past this pernicious foe that thrives in the hearts of power hungry politicians who have lost sight of the service they were elected to provide.

  13. This is astonishingly bad form. What is it going to take for us to have an algorithmic solution to districting? Surely there is a better way than asking the foxes to arrange the interior walls of the hen house.

  14. Hey Republicans, when Stonewall charged, he moved FORWARD. You need to come up with some universal aspirations if you want to prevail in a statewide vote. Safe districts only allow your Republican malaise to fester.

  15. This is more than power politics….it is racism pure and simple…alive and well in Virginia.
    Petition challenging McDonnell to demonstrate that he is not racist by vetoing this change (and any other devised by such shameful tactics that dishonor civil rights).

  16. An irony of Creigh Deeds losing his seat is that Deeds has introduced a non-partisan redistricting bill every single year for as long as I can remember. There is no stronger proponent of non-partisan redistricting than him. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

  17. Sitting with my mother on a spring morning a few years ago and talking politics, her lifetime of wisdom related that our problem is not politics, it is integrity–the lack of it. Now, I guess we will have to see if the Governor has any.

  18. This is a reminder of why districting needs to be the work of a non-partisan, rather than partisan, committee.

  19. VA has been a blue state for the past two national elections. The local GOP cannot get their way democratically, and they know it. It’s time to stop this contortionist of districts and make the boundaries from simple grids. Then let the chips fall where they may.

  20. Yesterday, we observed the public re-Inauguration of our 44th President, the 57th Presidential Inauguration in American history, the peaceful transference of authority by majority voter preference by We, the People.

    Yesterday, we also observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a federal holiday which, in Virginia, was first Lee-Jackson-King Day (combining an existing day commemorating two Confederate generals with that for Reverend King). The state separated the two holidays, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day became an official state holiday in its own right, 13 years ago.

    January 21, 2013.
    Official United States Presidential Inauguration Day: check.
    Official Federal holiday: check.
    Official Virginia state holiday: check.

    One would think the Virginia State Legislature would, therefore, not be in session… that the majority of state legislators would take advantage of the long weekend like the vast majority of Americans, perhaps attend the Inauguration, or spend the day with family, or with children off school.

    One would be wrong. Instead, they “took advantage” of the day to rig Virginia’s elections – to usurp the legally mandated vote of We the People in Virginia – for their own partisan advantage. Lots of mining bills coming up… lots of bills restricting women’s free will… lots of corporate tax breaks. Having the advantage will mean pushing through the (R) agenda, unchecked. Even though voters in Virginia have said otherwise.

    Will the governor sign the bill? Probably. Like other (R) governors who have had partisan right-to-work or collective-bargaining bills presented to them via similar circumstances… the political advantage, when one is in a losing party, is too great a temptation – especially for an ambitious politician.

    Is this the future of American politics? We’re OK with that?

    People are all up in arms about Second Amendment Rights… how about our primary Constitutional right/responsibility: the Right to VOTE for elected officials who will act on our behalf… and not for their own benefit?

  21. Wouldn’t this be exactly the kind of thing subject to review by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act?

  22. It is very likely that the Department of Justice will have to approve this redistricting plan. Given that a new African-American majority district is formed by this plan, that will be part of the DOJ decision-making process. Needless to say, it will be interesting what they decide to do. Will a lawsuit be another result since there was no public input process? Another good question. The only thing we know for sure is that this is not over.

  23. Joe, Joe, Joe, have you not heard justice Scalia? The Voting Rights Act is So-o-o-o-o 1965.

  24. Susan Clarke Schaar, will you marry me? Just for pretend since Virigina doesn’t like that kind of same-sex thing.

  25. Dems might want to put their big boy pants on and put the hankies away. They ran a partisan, in your face Senate for a few years, and now that bites them in the ass.

    Suck it.

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