Although Haywood County’s municipal elections in Canton, Clyde and Maggie Valley will garner the most attention through November, state legislative campaigns will fire up shortly thereafter — if not sooner.
North Carolina will now have two primary elections in 2016 as lawsuits challenging the state’s districting maps continue to play out in court.
Maybe North Carolina will be a shining star of a state working to resolve petty partisanship, and maybe it won’t.
A three-judge federal panel ruled last week that two of the state’s congressional districts were gerrymandered, that they were unconstitutional because they were redrawn by the GOP-led legislature based on racial proportions. That, obviously, is illegal. The panel ruled that these particular districts — the 1st and 2nd — have to be redrawn, meaning other districts will also have to be change.
By Martin Dyckman
Blackbeard, North Carolina's most famous pirate, was a fitting precursor to the modern brigands at Raleigh. As Scott McLeod's column pointed out last week (www.smokymountainnews.com/opinion/item/11167), there’s no apparent limit to their ruthlessness or to their scorn for the Old North State’s progressive traditions.
Their new tax deal — rhymes with steal — will save the richest of their constituents $10,000 on the average while raising rates on the poor and eventually shorting education and health care by some $700 million a year.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, doesn’t mince words: he knows perfectly well that his budding state political career is being jeopardized by his own party’s redistricting proposals.
“But it follows the state constitution, and I’m in favor of that,” Davis said. “The districts are clean, and they are fair, and I think following the law is a lot more important than catering to my political career.”
Davis, a Franklin orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner, beat incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County, during last year’s election in a Republican scrum that saw conservatives wrest control of the General Assembly. The victory won the GOP the right to reconfigure the state’s political landscape for the next decade.
But in recompiling state House and Senate districts to comply with population changes as recorded in the 2010 U.S. census, the GOP sure didn’t do party-member Davis any favors. The 50th Senate District has been redrawn minus Republican stronghold Transylvania County, and including all of Democratic-heavy Haywood County.
Davis knows that he could be fighting for his state political life.
The race last year was close: Davis trumped Snow by just more than 200 votes.
“The 50th could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but it’s far from a sure thing,” said North Carolina political expert Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
With the reconfiguring, Gov. Beverly Perdue still would have won the district 50-46 percent, Cooper pointed out. On the other hand, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole would have won 49-47 percent over challenger Kay Hagen, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate seat, and Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, would have ended in a dead heat, he said. Despite all of those relatively close races, however, Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, would have won soundly, 57-44 percent.
“It’s an interesting one for political prognosticators,” Cooper said. “We talk a lot about ‘incumbency advantage,’ the name recognition and benefits that come from being an incumbent, but with two potential challengers who have been in office before, it’s tough to know exactly how it will play out.”
Janie Benson, chairman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, is excited about the prospects for her party.
“We feel like we do have two strong candidates,” she said.
Republicans, on the other hand, are left in the awkward position of supporting their party’s proposed redistricting plan even while acknowledging Davis has been left vulnerable.
“It’s going to make it very rough on Jim,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It really hurt to lose Transylvania. But, it’s logical, and it equalizes the counties (population numbers).”
Slaughter said the Republican Party would need to get conservative voters “revitalized” in Haywood County, and that the GOP has its work cut out for it to hold on to the 50th.
Ironically, Haywood County’s Republican Party openly lobbied for the county to be returned to one district. Haywood currently is a split county in both the Senate and the House, and is represented by two different legislators.
County Republicans, apparently with some success, argued that two House and two Senate districts are confusing to voters and have diluted the county’s legislative influence. Local Democrats fought the change they now are embracing joyfully, maintaining only a few weeks ago that Haywood County residents were well served by having two senators and two representatives.
Davis said the Haywood County precincts he currently represents are solidly Republican, but that he’s now picking up strong Democratic-dominated precincts, based on party registrations.
But, he said, it’s impossible to argue with the geographic logic of having the 50th Senate District made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties, as it once was.
For his part, former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County, doesn’t believe that GOP redistricting leaders were trying to develop a perfectly balanced and fair political scenario in this part of the state. He thinks they simply ran out of North Carolina counties while trying to juggle things elsewhere in favor of Republicans.
“They didn’t have a lot of options at this end of the state,” Queen said. “You can’t get behind John.”
Cherokee County is the state’s westernmost county, bordered by Tennessee and Georgia.
Elsewhere, the GOP’s proposed redistricting does appear to favor the party’s chances of retaining House and Senate seats. Transylvania County would shift from the 50th to the 48th District, further locking down the Republican’s hold through Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, the rules committee chairman in the Senate.
Also shifting in a dominoes-like manner? Polk County would move from the 48th to the 47th District, and more of the 48th District’s precincts in Buncombe County would shift to the 49th District. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, represents the 49th.
“Six incumbent Democrats were placed in districts with other incumbent Democrats, compared to three Republicans who were doubled up,” Cooper said. “There is also some evidence that Democratic voters were ‘packed’ into districts, increasing the chances that the Republicans hold onto more seats or expand their lead.
“We can’t forget, however, that the Democrats would do the same thing — and did do the same thing 10 years earlier. It is one reason these districts are so difficult to analyze — we tend to compare them to the existing districts that were drawn by Democrats.”
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.
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.
Democrats are crying foul over new Congressional district lines that with seemingly surgical precision slice the City of Asheville, a liberal stronghold, out of the 11th Congressional District.
The maps, drawn by state Republican leaders in the the GOP-dominated General Assembly, are no doubt a political move, according to Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
“This is the game that both parties play,” Cooper said. “They know exactly what they are doing.”
The new 11th Congressional District would include Mitchell, Avery, Caldwell and Burke counties. In exchange, the district divests itself of Asheville and eastern Buncombe, as well as Polk County. The mountain district will shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
The result: a far more conservative voting base, and much more difficult re-election campaing next year for three-term Democrat Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville.
Shuler seized the district in 2006 over eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Transylvania County, and has easily won back his seat every election since. His opponent last fall was considered an admirable opponent, and the year was a watershed for Republicans, but even then Shuler handily kept his seat with more than 54 percent of the vote.
That may not be the case in 2012 given the new district lines, however. Shuler is one of several previously Democratic-leaning districts that has been infused with just enough GOP voters to tip the balance.
As for what to do with all those Democratic voters? The best bet is to lump as many as possible into as few districts as possible. In otherwords, pick a few Democratic-leaning districts to be sacrifical lambs. Stack them heavily with Democrats, while spreading Republican voters around to have just enough of an edge in as many districts as possible.
“Any vote after 50 plus one is a wasted vote,” Cooper said. “The reason you do that is not to dominate a few districts but to win a lot of districts by a little bit.”
All the while, however, the districts must make geographic sense or else risk being overturned in a court battle. If the other party can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines is likely.
In this instance, Cooper doesn’t think the new mountain districts cross that line. He sees the districts being geographically close enough to be bullet proof in court, yet still achieving their purpose of favoring Republicans.
“They did a great job of it. The more I look at the more impressed I am,” Cooper said.
Mike Clampitt of the Swain County Republican Party said the redrawing wasn’t tit-for-tat as it might appear — Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering districts in North Carolina — but a case of putting likes with likes.
“This balances the playing field,” Clampitt said. “Asheville is more like the Greensboro and Charlotte area.”
That metropolitan, urban mindset is at odds with the rural understandings and needs of the bulk of the 11th Congressional District, Clampitt said.
Members of the opposing party see the situation differently, however: “Democrats will not take this lying down,” promised Janie Benson of the Haywood County Democratic Party.
“I’m stunned, because the distance between Caldwell county and Cherokee county is so great,” Benson said, adding that the redistricting proposed by Republicans is a “blatant” attempt to wrest the district from Democrats.
“Frankly the redistricting maps that I’ve seen just look unfair,” she said. “The Democrats, to my knowledge, have never been so obvious in whatever they were doing. This just seems almost like a punishment, and it feels that way somewhat.”
In addition to threatening Democrats hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts.
But Kirk Callahan of Haywood County, a self-described conservative, believes Republicans might be missing the mark some. While cautioning he hasn’t had time to fully assess the potential voter fallout, Callahan thinks the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters could actually dictate who wins and who loses.
“They are key,” Callahan said. “A candidate has to earn the votes, because they are not going to be swayed by party labels or an appeal to party loyalty.”
Callahan, by way of example, pointed to Taylor’s defeat, saying he was dismayed by the longtime congressman’s unabashed support of earmarks.
“That didn’t sit well with me, because (earmarks) really corrupted the budgeting process,” he said.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
Across the state, there were five districts that posted major geographical shifts. Four are seats currently held by vulnerable Democrats that have now seen the scales tip in their district to favor Republicans — as is the case with Shuler’s district. The fifth that showed the biggest changes was held by a vulnerable Republican, but is now more solidly Republican.
“It is really clear they targeted these vulnerable Democrats,” Cooper said.
Shuler’s new district would be the most Republican-leaning district in the state when judging by those who voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.
Shuler is a conservative Democratic at best — others considered him a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only — and plays well with conservative Southern Democrats and even many Republicans.
But under the new district lines, even that may not be enough, Cooper said.
“For Shuler to win he would have to practicaly completely separate himself from the Democratic party,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a really intersting race.”
Every 10 years, along with the census, state legislative and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population change. As the population grows, so does the number of people each elected leader represents.
The state’s Congressional District will need to grow from the current 619,177 people to the 733,499 each, plus or minus 5 percent.
Since growth was more robust in urban areas, districts in rural regions like Western North Carolina will have to expand geographically to take in the required number of people.
Under the proposed new maps, which sever Asheville from the district, it would lose 9,000 Democrats and gain 26,000 Republicans.
The Department of Justice issues guidelines governing how states can and can’t be carved up, and they must approve a map before it can be put into action.
Currently, redistricting is done by legislators and is a highly partisan affair. With every redistricting comes a court challenge from one side or the other, claiming that the lines are unfair.
But under new legislation recently passed by the state House, the process would become staff-driven, with a simple up-or-down vote by legislators. It’s based on a system long used by Iowa, where no redistricting has been to court in the four decades since the system was put into place.
The measure is now headed to the Senate.
Weigh in on new Congressional districts
A public hearing on the new Congressional district maps will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, at Western Carolina University in the Cordelia Camp Building.
It is one of nine across the state on the same day and time. There is also one in the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech.
The hearings are sponsored by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, and anyone wishing to comment can sign up online at www.ncga.state.nc.us or in person the day of the hearing. Written comments can also be submitted on the North Carolina General Assembly’s Website.
This year, the math of moving districts will give virtually every western block a shift.
Sen. Jim Davis’s, R-Franklin, Senate District 50, which now claims seven counties — Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Jackson and Transylvania — plus part of Haywood, lacks around 15,000 patrons to reach the threshold.
“I know my district is going to change,” said Davis. “We’ve got to pick up 15,000 in population, but I don’t know exactly how it’s going to change. I think that I may get more of Haywood County, but I don’t know for sure.”
He could scoop up a greater share of Haywood to bring enough voters into the fold, but all of Haywood would push him over the threshold. Unless, however, Transylvania was given the boot.
Without Transylvania, the seven western counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee — perfectly comprise a Senate district. Haywood would not need to be split between two senate districts as it is now.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Haywood County, the horseshoe-shaped ward of Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, that wraps from Haywood up to Mitchell and back down to McDowell likewise needs to expand its boundaries to bring in enough voters. This is due partly to the across-the-board district broadening the census has imposed on rural areas and exacerbated by possibly losing his existing slice of Haywood. He will likely have to shift northeast to pull in enough people.
Over in the house, Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, knows his district will have some rearranging to do, as well.
“It will have to be divided. There is no way you can do it (otherwise),” Haire said. “There is a certain amount of common sense that goes in to it.”
The way he sees it, the process must start in Cherokee County, at the state’s westernmost corner, picking up the populace in pieces as it moves along.
“You have to have so many people in a district. If one county doesn’t have it you add another county, if that doesn’t do it you add in another,” said Haire.
And if you start in the corner and move steadily eastward, it’s almost certain that his district will, again, split Haywood.
House District 119, Haire’s domain, now takes in Swain, Jackson and parts of Haywood and Macon counties.
But doing east-moving math, Cherokee, Graham, Clay and Macon make a perfect district — just upwards of 80,000 people, falling neatly in the range for a House district without splitting any county. From there, it moves up toward Jackson and Swain, but those two together are 20,000 people shy of a district. So Haire would have to take a 20,000-person bite out of Haywood or Transylvania; one of the two would have to be split.
Slicing Haywood to give to Haire seems the most likely for a couple of reasons, the most practical being geography and likeness — Haywood is far more similar to and easily accessible from Swain and Jackson counties than Transylvania.
But there are, of course, political considerations as well.
Rep. David Guice, R-Brevard, holds all of Transylvania at the moment. And his party holds the power in this year’s redistricting, so it seems unlikely that splitting that historically Republican county away from Guice would be high on any Republican agenda.
Right now, Haire has a pretty small sliver of Haywood County — around 25 percent — but were he to grab from there as many votes as he needed, he’d be claiming almost half of the county.
Which brings the discussion to Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who now shares the county with Haire. He would lose some of his voters in Haywood to Haire’s district, forcing him to push further north and east in a bid for a full district, claiming the whole of Yancey County into his three-county district.
In legislatures around the nation, it’s that time of decade again — time to break out the old redistricting maps and rehash the legislative lines.
Every 10 years, following the decennial census, lawmakers are constitutionally obliged to rearrange their districts so a roughly equal number of people are in each one, ensuring an representative Democracy of one person, one vote.
In North Carolina, the General Assembly is permanently comprised of 170 members: 50 senators and 120 representatives. Most every district will be finagled at least a little.
The state’s population grew by 18.5 percent, so the number of people in each districts must likewise grow. House districts, then, need 79,462 people. Senators now have to represent 190,710.
Since creating districts with such exact numbers would be hopelessly arduous, the rules allow for 5 percent more or less in every district.
For senators and representatives in the west, this means their districts will likely grow, pushing north and east in the pursuit of enough constituents.
This whole series of scenarios is a picture of the larger, statewide trend: over the last decade, urban areas have blown up. Rural areas, not quite so much, according to the 2010 census.
So legislators in more rural regions on the state’s mountain and coastal bookends are going to see their already-sizable districts balloon in geographic scope, freeing up legislative seats for faster-growing urban areas.
On the whole, two governing principles drive the redistricting process: equal representation among districts and districts where the predominant factor isn’t race.
Beyond that, the state’s constitution asks that counties be kept together, though as Western North Carolina proves, that’s often impracticable.
Then there’s the added political layer, which is what produces gerrymandered districts, those that are outlandishly drawn to cater to one party or politician’s interest.
In the gerrymandering game, North Carolina isn’t quite a gold-medal winner. Maryland has a few districts that resemble nothing so much as a polygraph readout, while Florida boasts a congressional region or two that look like a dot-matrix printer gone awry on a map.
But political considerations have factored into the state’s districts, and they haven’t always taken the constitutional mandates into account, splitting counties either for necessity or political consideration.
One thing nearly everyone agrees on, however, is that the future of redistricting would be a more equitable landscape if politics were taken out of the process altogether.
That’s the intent of House Bill 824, co-sponsored by Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, which passed in the House earlier this month.
It calls for a non-partisan, staff-penned plan that’s based on district compactness, continuity and constitutional mandates. Legislators would then give the map an up-or-down vote.
“I think what’s important is they don’t take into account the current residence of sitting members. So you don’t get into ‘oh, that’s so-and-so’s district, we’ve got to carve that out so he stays or she stays in this district,’” said Rapp.
The plan would kick in with the 2020 census and is based on Iowa’s method, which has been operating there for four decades without a single court challenge. The same cannot be said for North Carolina’s procedures.
“I think what it’ll do is ensure fairness in the process,” said Rapp. “Every decade we’ve had court challenges to the redistricting plan in North Carolina. I think there’s just a time when you say, ‘let’s do it right.’ Just do it straight up, straight forward so it’s fair and let the chips fall where they may.”
Rapp found bi-partisan support for the measure in the House, and he’s hoping for the same in the Senate.
For his part, Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he’s not against the idea.
“Some states do it that way and it seems to work pretty well,” said Davis. “Politicians are going to be really reluctant to give up that authority, but I think that has some merit.”
The legislature doesn’t yet have a final plan for the new districts, but committees have been meeting in both chambers to investigate the task, and the whole assembly is slated to start discussing it in mid-July, with recommendations due by the end of that month.
Haywood County is a split county in both chambers represented by two different legislators. But now, there’s a move afoot to pull it back into a single district. Anyone putting pencil to paper to do the math, however, has realized it simply might not be possible.
This year, Haywood County’s Republican Party is lobbying for the county to be returned to one district, arguing that two house and two senate districts are confusing to voters and dilute the county’s legislative influence.
“It would be better if we were dealing with one legislator better than two,” said John Meinecke, chair of the Haywood County Republican Party. “The fact that we’ve been separated diminishes our political authority with the people in Raliegh. We’re the largest county west of Asheville, and yet it diminishes our political authority by having it divided the way it was.”
Local Democrats maintain the opposite, saying that four is always better than two, giving the county more clout and voice than surrounding counties.
“We are well-served — or have been in the past — by having four instead of two. We’ve had two senators and two representatives. I guess it just serves our county better,” countered Janie Benson, who heads up the Haywood Democrats.
Though they’d been asked to support a resolution in favor of joining the county, county commissioners declined to take a stance on the issue earlier this month.