A Way Out of the Circle of Hell Known as Redistricting
Even by the debased standards of party politics, apportionment--dividing the state into legislative or congressional districts--really stinks. Drawing district lines brings out the worst in legislators: Elemental concepts of fair play and small-d democracy go right out the window, and the only rule is to get yours any way you can. So crude are the tactics, and so distasteful the results when the maps are shown to a cynical public, that judges are almost compelled to get involved--to redress the abuse? or just do it unto others?
The decision last week by the federal Department of Justice to clear (or "preclear," in the vernacular) the legislative districts that came out of this year's descent into apportionment hell means North Carolina can actually go ahead with the primary elections postponed since May. The primary has been set for Sept. 10, leaving no time for runoffs before the parties' candidates turn to face each other Nov. 7.
Want some really bad news? When the election's over, the nightmare begins again. Or, to be precise, resumes. The reason, not much discussed in the press: The legislative districts Justice precleared are temporary, for the 2002 elections only. Long, long story short, a trial judge named Knox Jenkins was authorized by the state Supreme Court to devise an "interim" apportionment plan if he didn't like the one--the second one--that the General Assembly enacted. He did just that.
Jenkins, a Republican, had already struck down the first General Assembly plans. The Supreme Court backed him up 5-2, with the five Republican justices in the majority and the two Democrats dissenting. The General Assembly, of course, is controlled by the Democrats, who've been screaming like stuck pigs about it ever since.
Is there any way of NOT resuming the political nightmare? Yes, there is. Senate Bill 285 calls for the creation of an independent redistricting commission. The nine commission members would be chosen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Senate president, the House speaker and the governor (two each except three for the governor), and the basic requirements are: (1) all of them have to pick at least one member who's NOT from their own party; and (2) no member can have run for public office in the last four years nor can they run in the next four years.
After what North Carolina's been through in the last year with legislative districts and for the last decade with congressional districts (remember Mel Watt's infamous Interstate 85 district, the subject of not one but two U.S. Supreme Court rulings?), an independent commission makes such eminent sense that, as Chris Heagerty, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education, says, "I don't know why people continue to oppose it." But they do. Or at least, the Democrats in the General Assembly do. Heagerty's spent a couple of frustrating weeks trying to figure out why, but he can't. "Some Democrats tell me that the people expect their legislators to draw up the districts," he says. "It bewilders me why they think that."
Many Democrats are so outraged at what the Republican judges have done to them that they refuse even to think about SB 285 for the simple reason that it's sponsored--has been for years--by Republican Sen. Hamilton Horton of Winston-Salem. Horton's co-sponsors: All 14 of his Senate GOP colleagues, but not one Democrat.
SB 285 requires a constitutional amendment, since it changes procedures spelled out in the state constitution, and therefore needs three-fifths majorities in both houses to be put on the November ballot, followed by voter approval. Voter approval, of course, would clear up any confusion about what "the people expect" in redistricting. And if approved, it would seem that it could only help the Democrats, which is the reason Heagerty says it's "to their credit" that Republican legislators still support it. How would Democrats gain? What if, with the help of the Supreme Court's decision and Judge Jenkins' districts, the Republicans win the elections in the fall? Win both houses. Then they'll control redistricting, and the Democrats will rue their decision not to create an independent commission while they could. All right, the Democrats think they're going to win anyway? Or at least win the Senate? Even so, any redistricting plan they can push through will still be subject to the demonstrably unhelpful ministrations of Jenkins & Co.
The Supreme Court's 5-2 ruling has already hemmed in the kind of free-form gerrymandering the Democrats so enjoyed. By drawing squiggly lines that packed as many Republican precincts into as few districts as possible, the Democrats were able, for example, to win 35 Senate seats out of 50 in the 2000 election even though nearly half the voters supported Republican candidates. That's apportionment politics for you.
So the court, in a breathtaking bit of judicial activism, brushed off the "whole-counties provision" of the state constitution, thought to be null and void because of its obvious racist origins, and gave it an entirely new meaning.
Originally, it required all legislators to be elected countywide, even if that meant big multimember districts in the larger counties, so as to minimize the chances of black candidates. Now, "harmonizing" it with the Voting Rights Act, the court declared that henceforth, multimember districts are a no-no, but single-member districts must stay within county lines except as required for population balance or to keep minority communities intact. Democratic legislators have appealed that ruling far and wide, to no avail so far, but they also complied with it, drawing up a plan that appeared to meet the letter of the court's law while wriggling within county boundaries to maximize their party's chances. They were flabbergasted, therefore, when Jenkins, with no explanation, "adjusted" the lines in several counties, including Wake County, in ways that improved Republican chances.
In Wake, for example, Jenkins redrew the House district lines so that Democrats are packed into three districts, giving the GOP an excellent chance of taking the other five (the second General Assembly plan was likely to split 4-4). District 38, for example, was a "57 percent Democratic-performing district" in the legislature's plan, according to Deborah Ross, a Democrat running in it. Now it's an 80 percent district. Almost all the Republicans in it were moved to House District 37, moving the latter from the Democratic- to the Republican-leaning column.
Though Jenkins didn't put his reasons in writing, it seems apparent that he would justify his changes as complying with the Voting Rights Act. Instead of one majority-black House district (District 33), his changes create two near-black majority districts. The black population of District 33 was reduced to just under 50 percent, helping boost the black component of District 38 to 46 percent. But Jenkins also added the overwhelmingly Democratic white precincts of University Park and other "inside the Beltline" Raleigh neighborhoods to 38, packing them in as securely as the Republicans were packed in the old Senate districts scheme.
Was this good law? Or just apportionment politics now played by a judge? On this score, it didn't help the judiciary's reputation for probity when Robert Orr, one of the Supreme Court Republicans and a candidate for re-election this year, introduced a Republican legislator recently at a fund-raiser and offered the wish that "someday" that legislator would be in the majority. An independent redistricting commission would spare everyone the suspicion that Orr's remark wasn't just a slip of the tongue, but rather the real reason he helped strike down the Democrats' districts.
Driving While Latino in Durham
I came home the other night to find an accident blocking my driveway, and a racial stereotype being turned on its head. A Durham police car's lights flashed. Seven or eight people leaned on cars and milled about in the gravel drive. I did what anyone would do upon encountering such a scene in their front yard--I parked on my neighbor's side, then walked over to see what the commotion was all about.
There was a Latino family that spoke little English, a nervous, white teenager who frequently asked to borrow my cell phone, and an African-American police officer typing on his laptop by the dome light of his car. I decided it would be a good idea to offer my bilingual assistance to the officer, but by that time, he was already filling out his report. He told me he already had all the information he needed.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clear to me that he very likely didn't. The Anglo teenager claimed he had been rear-ended at the stoplight. The Latino driver--let's call him Oscar--and his passengers all claimed otherwise. They said the Anglo driver had hit them by backing up at the light, after he had lightly tapped the bumper of another car ahead of him. The driver of that car (also Hispanic) confirmed Oscar's story, but his car showed no damage as corroborating evidence.
The officer handed the accident report to Oscar and asked me to explain that it declared he was at fault. The Latino family protested quietly in Spanish that the officer had not understood them. But at this point, the die had been cast. The officer left. The Anglo driver left, too, but not before apologizing for the accident and asking me to translate that into Spanish.
I called 911 twice and asked if there were any Spanish-speaking officers who could be dispatched to the scene. I was promised an officer would call me back. No one ever did. This was enough to get me interested in a larger question: Does the Durham Police Department have Spanish-speaking officers available to handle everyday situations like this?
Turns out, the answer is: Yes, and no. The Durham Police have been successful with outreach efforts to the Hispanic community and bilingual officer recruitment in the last several years, and as a result have become a role model for smaller departments throughout the region. At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that the department's resources are still stretched, and the need for improvements in its ability to communicate with all city residents continues.
According to Nestor Gonzalez, administrator for the police department's Victim/Witness Assistance Office, there are currently about 15 bilingual officers who can respond to calls in a city that's home to 25,000 Latino residents. Due to the pressing need, they concentrate on the most serious crimes involving information-gathering, interviewing of witnesses and suspects, and felony arrests. Gonzalez, first brought to Durham from Philadelphia in 1998 to work with Hispanic crime victims, helped the city successfully prosecute a string of highly publicized home invasion robberies, rapes and assaults against Latinos. Now, three times weekly he moves his office to El Centro Hispano to provide the Latino community access to police services and information exchange in a non-uniformed environment.
Unfortunately, though, Latinos are all too often on the wrong side of the language barrier when it comes to encounters with police. Ivan Parra, of El Centro Hispano, recommends that citizens who've experienced or witnessed miscommunication between city residents and the police should contact Gonzalez's office. In addition, Durhamites can contact the police chief's office either by phone or through the Web site (www.durhampolice.com) to express support for expanding the department's Hispanic Outreach and Spanish-speaking officer recruitment initiatives.
As for Oscar's car, it was totaled. His insurance company will pay his claim, though, since it turns out that the white kid behind the wheel of his parents' car was the one driving without insurance that day.
Numbers Still Don't Lie
Numbers for thought from "Consider This," the Common Sense Foundation's daily bit of outrage from the legislature. To read more of them, go to their Web site at www.common-sense.org. 2 Size, in billions of dollars, of state budget shortfall 3 Weeks, as of July 15, since the House leaders said a budget would be released 16 Days into the current fiscal year, as of July 16, without a budget 16 Number of bills introduced in House this session to close corporate loopholes and/or raise taxes (other than sales tax or lottery) instead of making draconian cuts to state services 14 Days from introduction of resolution supporting Pledge of Allegiance to House debate and final floor vote on resolution 32 Days from July 15 since the last bill to close corporate loopholes filed 0 Number of public meetings held so far to consider any of the 16 revenue bills 558 Number of registered lobbyists at the General Assembly 625 Number of interests represented by those lobbyists
"Catfish are hitting small bream, goldfish and big minnows on trotlines. White bass are hitting Roostertails."
--Excerpt from a fishing report from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Please send all tips, digs, cheers and fish recipes to: hart@indy week.com or call Richard Hart at 286-1972 ext. 134.
Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.