New Congressional districts crafted by state GOP leaders that appear to position the party for political domination in North Carolina for the next decade drew sharp criticism late last week during a state hearing in Cullowhee.
Asheville and parts of Buncombe County would be booted out of the 11th Congressional district and lumped in with Piedmont counties and metropolitan areas on the outskirts of Charlotte.
The liberal voting bloc of Asheville would be replaced with four conservative-voting northern mountain counties — tipping the district decidedly more Republican and making it difficult for a Democratic Congressman, even one as conservative as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to get elected.
And that smacks, opponents said, of in-your-face gerrymandering by the GOP. Because if the plan stands despite the court challenges that are sure to come, Republicans will have neatly sliced out and diluted the liberal votes Democrats have long counted on from the Asheville area. The mountain district would shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. House District map
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. Senate District map
The districts must make geographic sense to not be overturned. If Democrats can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines could send North Carolina’s redistricting efforts back to the drawing board.
“Sirs, you overplayed your hand with this one,” said Janie Benson, who chairs the Haywood County Democratic Party. “It may be good politics for the moment, but it is not good for the people of Western North Carolina. Asheville is the soul of the area. Asheville is the historic, the judicial, the health, the shopping and the entertainment center of our area.”
Benson was one of at least 12 Democrats alone from Haywood County who gathered at Western Carolina University for an interactive redistricting hearing that included various other North Carolina sites.
A before-the-event poll at WCU by The Smoky Mountain News found one lone Republican signed up to speak, Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. He, not surprisingly, thought the proposed map simply looked great.
“There will be more minorities involved this way than were before,” Slaughter said. “I really don’t have a problem with it. This comes closer to the equalization needed, population-wise.”
N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, said as a result of the redistricting Buncombe County would actually gain more representation than it has ever enjoyed before — it would, he pointed out, have two congressional voices instead of just one.
“Most of the bigger cities in the state have more than one representative,” Apodaka said. “It’s a sign of things happening all over the country.”
Jeffrey Israel of Haywood County, however, said he could find no historical basis for removing Asheville from the 11th Congressional District.
“It attempts merely to subvert the traditional political will of the western mountains and can only be thought to stab a knife in the progressive heart of Western North Carolina,” Israel said.
In addition to threatening Democrats’ hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts as a result of the redistricting.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, before the official hearing started, said that he believes “gerrymandering was wrong in the early 1800s, and it is still wrong in 2011-12. It does not benefit the voters or serve anyone well. I’m opposed to either party redistricting against logic and geography, and I don’t think it will stand in court.”
The GOP won the right to control the redistricting process after taking control of the state General Assembly in last November’s election. Redistricting takes place every 10 years after new census numbers are released.
“No matter how you shape it, now matter how you slice it, Asheville is not a Piedmont community,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. He said compactness is out the window under the new map, with a drive from Avery County in the north part of the district to Cherokee County in the west taking four or five hours — if you don’t stop for restroom breaks along the way.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
N.C. House and Senate districts due out this week
The maps will reflect new state legislative districts. How western counties are sliced and diced has been the source of much speculation, and will impact which party has an easier time getting elected to seats in the state legislature.
On Monday, July 18, a public hearing on the state redistricting process will be held at Western Carolina University. The session will be held from 3 until 9 p.m. in Room 133-B of the Cordelia Camp Building on the WCU campus. Speaker registration will begin at 2 p.m.
Members of the public may comment on the current district plans, communities of interest, voting history or any other topic related to redistricting. Each speaker is limited to five minutes.
Two weeks ago, state GOP leaders released redistricting plans for the state’s congressional districts. Democrats have accused Republicans of gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to favor the likelihood of Republican candidates being elected.
To sign up for the public hearing, or to submit comments on line, go to www.ncleg.net/sessions/2011/publichearings/redistricting.html.