Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers weren't smiling as they filed back into their chamber at 12:48 p.m. Thursday. Only 40 minutes ago they had rejected a bill redrawing Greensboro's city council districts, and arms were clearly being twisted.
Eight minutes later, the House had reversed course and passed the measure with no debate allowed and accusations of lying, broken promises, and legislative blackmail from earlier in the day still hanging in the air.
"I think we're going to have to come to grips soon with what should be the role of the legislature in some of these local affairs," Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said. Blust has been a consistent opponent of the measure, saying he believed that any plan to rewrite Greensboro city government should be put to a vote of the people.
Fights over redrawing local school boards, boards of county commissioners and city councils are nothing new for the General Assembly. But the tussle over Greensboro has been particularly nasty and protracted, as community leaders and most city council members pushed lawmakers to call off the bill, or at least give residents a vote in the process.
Various versions of the Greensboro bill have been debated throughout this year's legislative session. Earlier this week, the House rejected a Senate-drafted plan, sending House Bill 263 to a conference committee – a small group of lawmakers designated to work out differences between the two chambers. That group filed a compromise Wednesday and both the House and Senate voted on the plan Thursday.
Broadly, the plan shifts Greensboro away from a city council with mixed at-large and district representation to nine-member board with eight elected in districts and a mayor elected city wide. Opponents of the plan point out that it "double-bunks" all four minority members of the current council, meaning that incumbents will be forced to run against one another. It also draws districts that opponents say are unnecessarily complex, cleaving many precincts between different council districts.
Senators voted for the bill 33-16, but only after Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, ripped the measure as one drawn by an all-white conference committee that is unfair to black voters.
"There’s an obvious attempt to disenfranchise the representation of the people who currently represent African-Americans – even those who were elected," Robinson said, adding later, "This plan is wrong, it’s mean spirited. I don’t know who it’s targeted at but it certainly impacts my community."
The Senate outcome was rarely in doubt. HB 263's Greensboro provisions were drafted by Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, and backed by Senate President Pro Temp Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Wade, Berger and Robinson all represent pieces of Greensboro.
Because this is a local bill and it deals with redistricting, Gov. Pat McCrory has no say on it. The measure is now law and will be the system in place when candidates line up to run for city council in the coming weeks.
For less than an hour, it appeared lawmakers might withhold that approval.
Turn about in the House
With the clock ticking down to a weeklong summer recess, members of the Guilford County delegation in the House hoped they were about to score a victory.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, pointed out that the bill lawmakers had before them had only been public for less than two days and that people back home had not chance to vet the latest version of the measure.
"It's bad policy, it's bad precess, it's bad for the public," Harrison said. "I don't know why the House is conceding to the bullies in the Senate."
Harrison and Blust were among those who referenced threats from the state Senate to reject or sideline bills put forward by House members who opposed the Greensboro redistricting bill.
Blust said he recognized that many members would vote for the bill because it was the path of least resistance.
"You don't want to have to take a position on Greensboro that could jeopardize all the rest of your business for the session," he said. It is not unusual for members of one chamber to hold legislation hostage until the other body passes a bill, but top leaders denied that had happened in this case.
Berger, the Senate's top leader, said he had not heard of that happening.
"I would not ask anybody to do that," he said. "That's not something I'm aware of."
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said later that while he had heard the allegations made on the House floor, nobody had brought him an interest where such a threat was made.
"I've not heard of any of that," he said.
Blusts' opposition to the bill drew ire from fellow Republicans.
"Didn't you say you would vote for this as is ... and agreed to it," Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, asked Blust. Both Hurley and Blust were members of the conference committee, although Blust withheld his signature from the final report.
"No, I did not say I could support this," Blust said. He shot back that it was Hurely who had misled him about a provision of the bill.
Although Hurley was the lead sponsor of the bill, she often wasn't able to answer key questions. For example, when asked why so many precincts were split, Hurley said that the maps were drawn by professional staff. And when challenged on a provision that would limit how the city could make alterations in the future, Hurley pointed to Senate authors of the bill. It's worth noting in the Senate that Wade said it was House members who had asked that districts be drawn the way they were.
Among confusion and pointed barbs, House members voted 50-53 to reject the bill. However, Moore turned back a procedural motion that would have locked in that vote for the next 18 months. Rather, the House took a recess, and Republicans quickly shuttled off to meet behind closed doors.
When they returned, Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, moved to reconsider the vote. In less than seven minutes, the House took votes that undid their earlier vote, cut off debate twice and approved the bill 57-46.
Of the six House members from Guilford County, only Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican whose district is based in High Point, voted for final passage of the bill. Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, initially voted for the measure, but sided against it on the final vote. Of the 18 Republicans from across the state who voted against the bill on the first vote, nine either switched their vote or didn't vote the second time.