by Joe Schwartz
The “fair and legal” assurances made by North Carolina Republicans since the redistricting process began were challenged directly Thursday both at a marathon nine-location public hearing on the proposed Congressional map and earlier in the day when the Democrats released their response, terming the plan “divide and conquer.”
N.C. NAACP President the Rev. William Barber said he had mixed emotions about appearing at the Raleigh hearing at the N.C. Museum of History. He knew that the GOP had the votes to pass the plan and that Gov. Bev Perdue has no veto power on redistricting. However, he said that he should register his objections on the record because the map will be subject to a court review. “It’s not over,” he said.
“We voice our objection and our indignation … This General Assembly is engaged in an unseemly effort to segregate African-Americans and submerge our political influence into two districts,” Barber said during the teleconferenced hearing. “It is a shameful, wrong, regressive act. It’s a perversion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and we will meet you in court.”
Sen. Bob Rucho, who, with Rep. David Lewis, drew up the plan, responded with a simple, “Thanks for your comments,” during the public hearings that the G.O.P touts as the largest effort to collect feedback from voters in the history of redistricting.
But are they listening?
At issue, under the proposal, which will come to a floor vote later this month, black voters are lumped together in the 1st and 12th district, represented by G.K. Butterfield and Mel Watt, respectively. Both congressmen offered written statements at the hearing, each saying that Rucho and Lewis mischaracterized their comments in an earlier joint statement and that they do not approve of the districts as drawn.
Five counties covered by the Voting Rights Act were removed from District 1.
The plan slashes the chance of re-election for four Democrats: Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, Brad Miller and Heath Schuler. Currently there are seven Democrats and six Republicans representing the Tar Heel State in the House.
The 13 districts do meet the requirement of “one person, one vote” with each containing 733,499 people, plus or minus one, but it’s how those numbers were achieved that causes concern.
District 1 would have 50.4 percent black voters, while District 12 would have 49.4 percent. The fourth district, comprising parts of Orange, Durham, Wake, Harnett and Cumberland, now represented by David Price, is also considered safe for Democrats and would be 28.2 percent black. Besides those, only District 3 would have a higher percentage of black voters than the state total of 20.6 percent.
Those who say that race should not be a factor in modern elections should note that the black voters make up 41.4 percent of registered N.C. democrats and just 1.92 percent of registered N.C. Republicans.
Lucia Mesina of Democracy N.C. and Alliance for Fair Redistricting and Minority Voting Rights (AFRAM) said the maps are driven by partisanship, not fairness.
“We will undoubtedly be in court. We are being followed by every major newspaper,” Messina said. “It may not mean anything to anybody else, but nobody wants to be a laughing stock.”
Other complaints came from Hickory, a town of 40,583 that’s being apportioned into three districts.
Walter Moone, 10th District Democratic Party Chairman, said the maps are “if legal, nonetheless unconscionable” and particularly noted the “balkanization of Hickory.”
“How can this insanity be necessary?” he asked.
Many also decried the removal of the progressive-leaning Ashevile from the 11th District, noting that the city serves as an anchor for the western part of the state and that it’s been tied to its current district for decades.
Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell called the shift “completely irrational.”
“There no way that a representative from the Piedmont represents what I consider to be my home,” he said.
Using the proposed districts, George Bush and Richard Burr would have won all but three districts in 2004. Most notably, President Barack Obama won only a majority in those three districts in 2008, though he won the state by 9,659 votes. Sen. Kay Hagan would have won five districts in her race against former Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Republicans point out that Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would have won all but the 9th district in 2008. Still, the 10-3 split would have held to form in the races for Lieutenant Governor, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor and Commissioner of Insurance.
Jessica Holmes, redistricting organizer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice reads between the lines when she hears Republicans say that their proposed districts allow for “increased competitiveness.”
“Their translation of ‘more competitive’ is more likely to elect a Republican candidate,” said Holmes, also a partner in the AFRAM.
The Alliance has offered its own maps, which they say don’t stack or pack.
Republican supporters turned out in greater numbers Thursday than in prior hearings, eager to change the narrative.
Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack offered that “the vast majority of the work is to be applauded,” and that changes to Lee County, which is now almost completely covered in District 6, are “about as well conceived as I could have hoped.
Others said the maps could be worse and that their votes will matter more now, especially in rural districts.
But, Holmes noted that several citizens who identified themselves as Republicans offered small critiques of their own proposed districts while at the same time lending support to the overall plan. Some said that the process was about what was “possible” not what was “perfect.”
“Their concerns came secondary to their party affiliation,” Holmes said. “They are choosing partisanship over truth.”
Though supporters of the new map argued that the Democrats drew favorable lines when in charge of the process and this is only payback, Brent Laurenz of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform says it doesn’t have to be that way.
He favors reworking the process into a bipartisan or citizen driven commission, leaving politicians out.
“It doesn’t matter who is in charge, when the Democrats were in charge we had the same problems,” he said. “It’s hard to have confidence when politicians are drawing their own districts.”