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Voting act overshadows race debate

Democrats weigh diluting districts of black majorities

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Andrew's Grill is a clear throwback to the 1960s. The worn lunch counter has leatherette stools, each booth has an ashtray, and stick-to-your-ribs favorites fill the menu: double cheeseburgers, cheese omelets, and scrambled eggs with a side of smokehouse bacon.

But the mostly black, working-class clientele of the bustling diner, and the city itself, are squarely atop a modern political fault line. Here, a historic 42-year-old law guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote grinds against present-day fights over political power.

There were celebrations last week when President Bush renewed key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which eliminated segregation at the ballot box. The act helped form political districts where black voters are in the majority, which sent the first wave of African-American representatives to Congress since Reconstruction -- and creating, over time, loyal Democratic voters.

But the renewal overshadowed a quiet but growing debate among Democrats: whether mostly black voting districts in cities like Petersburg -- which helped elect the state's first African-American House member in more than 100 years -- should be diluted to spread around liberal voters and help elect more Democrats get to Congress.

While most black politicians and activists agree with the concept of ``majority-minority" districts, others say they're a mixed blessing: By sweeping a concentrated number of black voters into fewer districts, the Voting Rights Act's unintended effect may be to increase racial polarization and help preserve Republican congressional power.

And like most debates involving race, few want to debate it openly.

``It's one of those things that are just sort of acknowledged," said David Bositis , a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies who specializes in race and politics, referring to the idea that majority-minority districts may have helped Republicans.

In redrawing districts in states where their party is in power, Republicans have used the Voting Rights Act as cover to ``pack and stack" black voters, Bositis said, cramming them into fewer districts.

Some Democrats, including some African-Americans, believe their party has better odds of retaking Congress if African-American voters are divided among many districts, leaving just enough of a percentage in any one district to elect minority candidates while helping more Democrats run competitively in surrounding districts.

Earlier this month, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democrats' committee overseeing House elections, questioned whether his party really needs ``a 70 percent district" to elect a minority candidate. They might be better off, he suggested, with ``a 50 to 45 district" making nearby areas more competitive ``so that more Democrats can win."

His quotations in The Washington Post raised eyebrows among some in the Congressional Black Caucus. Emanuel did not return phone calls from the Globe.

Representative Julia Carson of Indiana, who is black, recently won a fifth term from her Indianapolis-based district, which is 63 percent white, but she rejects Emanuel's assertion. ``I think if anything, we need to enhance" the number of majority-minority districts to ensure African-Americans are represented in Congress, noting that blacks still lack political power commensurate to their percentage of the population.

African-Americans represent 12.2 percent of the US population, but hold 9.7 percent of House seats and one of the 100 Senate seats.

Nonetheless, some Democrats acknowledge Emanuel's point.

Watering down so-called ``majority-minority" districts ``is being discussed," said a top aide to a senior Democratic congressional leader, the only party official who agreed to speak about the subject on condition of anonymity. ``It's a balancing act. You want to make sure [minorities] have a seat at the table" without concentrating so many in a single district that would weaken the party elsewhere.

Party leaders, however, can't do much besides pressure Democrats at the state level to push for changes in the makeup of House districts. State legislatures typically redraw districts once a decade in response to census data.

Under the Voting Rights Act, states with egregious histories of racial discrimination, most in the South, have to get permission from the Justice Department before they make any changes to voting laws or districts.

Bositis said legislatures have interpreted the act as a mandate for majority-minority districts, ``although there is wide flexibility in the law." Republican-dominated legislatures try to design districts with the maximum possible number of minorities -- such as the 2d district of Louisiana, which is 63.7 percent black and elected Representative William Jefferson to Congress with 79 percent of the vote.

Emanuel ``may have been criticized, but he was absolutely correct," said Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia. ``The Democrats have an enormous number of excess votes in these majority-minority districts."

But Ron Walters, who teaches political science at the University of Maryland, said he disagrees ``profoundly" with the idea that Democrats can have it both ways: win more seats by diluting majority-minority districts, yet ensure the election of blacks and Latinos.

The percentage of minority voters is one factor in a complex racial equation, he said. While Carson won in a mostly white district, it was in a northern state and her last race was close; meanwhile, Walters said, studies show Southern whites tend not to cross racial lines at the ballot box.

Given voting patterns, even a 60 percent minority district ``may not be enough to win" in some places, he said.

In Petersburg -- which the Republican-controlled state Legislature recently shifted into a district that elected a conservative white Republican over a black Democrat -- the debate takes on extra nuance. Located about 20 miles south of Richmond, the former Confederate capitol, Petersburg is a predominantly black city largely defined by the Civil War: the Confederacy made its last stand here, and the Union held the city under siege for nearly a year.

In 1992, Petersburg was in Virginia's 3d District, which sent Robert Scott , a Democrat and longtime black state legislator, to Congress, breaking a century-old color line.

Though his district included several heavily black urban areas, Scott said he didn't need them to win because he had shown he could appeal to white voters by winning a state legislative race in a district that was mostly white.

``The key isn't the race of the candidate -- it's not the `Candidate Rights Act,' " said Scott, a seven-term House incumbent. Districts should be drawn ``so the community has the opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice."

At Andrew's Grill, between bites of his twin chili dogs, Robert Myers , who is African-American, questioned the Democrats' motives in considering increasing the party's political power at the expense of black voters.

``Why would you do that? That's crazy," said Myers, 64, a longtime Petersburg resident. ``If you dilute black voting strength, how can [we] win?"

But Joseph Preston, an African-American lawyer who is active in local politics, sees both sides of the issue. He pointed to L. Douglas Wilder , former governor of Virginia and the state's first black elected governor, who won over voters in all areas of the state -- including mostly white, rural areas as well as cities.

Yet, given the fact that blacks needed a federal law to end voting discrimination, and the relative lack of black elected officials, Preston said it makes sense that African-Americans wouldn't want to change a system that helps them choose a representative ``who looks like me."

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