Raleigh, N.C. — A raucous House debate that included accusations of kowtowing to powerful senators led to a vote that killed efforts to impose a district system on Asheville City Council elections.
"I resent the idea that the current senior senator from Henderson and (Senate Rules Committee) chairman feels he must take one last parting shot at the City of Asheville when he represents a fraction of the population," Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said Friday night.
Fisher aimed her ire at Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who is retiring at the end of the year but has frequently sparred with Democratic lawmakers who represent urban areas.
Currently, Asheville elects its City Council in an at-large election process, meaning that would-be city leaders can live anywhere in the city. Apodaca has argued that system has produced city leaders who live mainly in Asheville's core and left southern Asheville unrepresented. His measure, Senate Bill 897, would divide the city into council districts and require council members to live in the areas they represent.
But the bill was controversial for a number of reasons. Over the past six years, Republican lawmakers have pushed redistricting measures onto urban areas unpopular with representatives from those counties and cities. One of those plans, which redrew Wake County commissioners and school board districts, was overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday.
In addition, when lawmakers return to Raleigh in even-numbered years for the legislative "short session," bills dealing with specific geographic areas are supposed to have the full support of the lawmakers who represent those areas. But aside from Apodaca, other lawmakers who represent Asheville oppose the measure.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, argued that the rules governing local bills didn't apply to elections matters, but that didn't sit well with some members of the House.
Many members said House leaders too often violated the chamber's own rules merely to satisfy the Senate. It was a charge that had been leveled more than once as lawmakers worked to end their session Friday and was particularly acute with regard to this bill.
"When you start playing these games, you do become part of the problem," Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said, accusing the chamber's leaders of too often buckling to pressure from the Senate. "Our rules mean nothing. Your word means nothing."
Fisher wheeled around on Apodaca himself, accusing the senator of falsely telling fellow lawmakers that there was agreement on the bill.
"This bill is based on a false statement from the senior senator from Henderson County," she said.
Asked about Fisher's comments, Apodaca said he was "offended" and never pretended there was widespread agreement on the measure.
However, comments from Blust, Fisher and others appear to have struck a chord with fellow House members, many of whom expressed displeasure that bills they sent to the Senate frequently were held hostage in exchange for measures like the Asheville bill. Apodaca, who listened to much of the debate via speaker and then appeared on the House floor toward the end, insisted that he was not holding up any legislation as part of an exchange for the Asheville bill.
The House voted down the measure 47-59.
"I'm sure they're just sending a goodbye present to me," Apodaca said.