- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - Lawyers for House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell are making a surprising argument to defend against an accusation of racial gerrymandering: Raw, partisan politics targeting Democrats fueled the 2011 redistricting process as much as race.

A trial began Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on the constitutionality of Virginia’s most recent drawing of legislative boundaries in the House of Delegates. The lawsuit alleges the redistricting plan illegally packs African-American voters into 12 legislative districts. As a result, according to the suit, black voters’ influence in the other 88 districts is diminished.

A panel of three federal judges is overseeing the trial and must decide whether race was the overriding factor in drawing the lines. Such a finding would increase the chances that the boundaries would be found unconstitutional. If, on the other hand, the judges decide that race was just one of many factors that went into the redistricting, it is more likely that the boundaries would pass muster.

As a result, lawyers for Howell, a Republican, and the House of Delegates are emphasizing efforts in redistricting to target and squeeze vulnerable Democrats when opportunities on the map presented themselves.

“You have to be in the political thicket,” lawyer Mark Braden told the judges as the trial began. “You have to watch a little bit of the sausage making.”

Specifically, they say they targeted Democrat Robin Abbott, who had defeated Republican Philip Hamilton in a Newport News area district in 2009. The plan was drawn up to throw Abbott into a district with Republican Glenn Oder. Republicans wanted to tilt the district to benefit Oder as much as possible, so they altered its lines to move black precincts into a minority-majority district represented by Democrat Mamye BaCote.

The trial brief cites similar maneuvers targeting Democrats William Barlow and Matthew James that also resulted in increased concentrations of black voters in adjacent districts.

“Politics played a key role in the plan,” Howell’s lawyers write in the trial brief. “Plaintiffs are unhappy with recent election results because too few Democrats won.”

The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that the plan had an overriding goal of ensuring that the 12 majority-minority House districts had at least 55 percent black voters, even though black delegates in those districts did not need such an overwhelming advantage to hold their seats.

Richmond Democrat Jennifer McClellan testified Tuesday that the 2011 redistricting increased the black electorate in her district from 46 percent black to 55 percent but did so in ways that disappointed her. She said she lost precincts in the largely white Fan district of Richmond that she wanted to keep because it was home to some of her strongest support. And she said that she tried to make changes sought by the Richmond city registrar to reduce the number of split precincts that would be divided among multiple legislative districts. But the changes were rejected because they would have reduced that district’s black population to 54.8 percent.

Former House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, who lost his house seat in the redistricting, testified that “as far as I can tell, the (55 percent) number was pulled out of thin air. But it was strictly adhered to.”

The allegations in this lawsuit are similar to claims made in a case challenging the state’s congressional districts. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the General Assembly to draw new congressional maps because the existing boundaries illegally pack voters into the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democrat Bobby Scott.

The trial is expected to conclude later this week.

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