GOP bill to redraw Wake commissioners boundaries rankles Dems
Posted March 4, 2015
Updated March 5, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A bill filed by Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, would redraw the political boundaries for Wake County Board of Commissioners districts, creating two new seats and aligning the districts with the school board map put in place last year.
Barefoot said his plan would give better representation to the county's smaller towns, but at least one local senator views it as a political ploy in response to a Democratic sweep of county commissioner seats in 2014.
"I am filing this to bill to give my constituents – and all Wake County residents – a much-needed voice within their county government," Barefoot said Wednesday. "Citizens from suburban and rural communities within Wake County – like my constituents in Wake Forest, Rolesville, Knightdale, Zebulon, Wendell, Garner – work hard and contribute greatly to our tax base, yet have virtually have no representation on the board, and that’s just not right."
Under current law, the seven Wake County commissioners live in and represent separate geographic districts but are elected countywide. The county is home to roughly 1 million people, Barefoot said, meaning each commissioner is responsible to a population bigger than those represented by members of Congress or the state legislature.
Barefoot's bill, Senate Bill 181, would conform the seven existing districts to match those represented by Wake County school board members. Like the newly created school board map, it would create two regional districts – one representing the urban core anchored in Raleigh, and one forming a large loop that takes in the more suburban and rural areas.
Instead of at large elections, under the new map only voters in the districts would select those representatives, meaning each voter would cast a ballot for one of the seven districts and one of the regional representatives.
Although that map has yet to be put in play, most believe it would give Republicans an edge in upcoming elections. Barefoot's bill would not fully take effect until 2018, and no sitting commissioner would lose his or her seat as a result of the redraw.
During an interview late Wednesday, Barefoot said he had been approached by rural constituents worried that their views would not be heard on the county board, which sets tax rates, provides funding for schools and oversees social services.
"I have constituents that, for many years, have worried that at-large elections were going to result in rural communities losing representation on the Wake County commissioners board, and that happened in a big way in this last election," he said.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, points to that election as well but says it is not the rural-urban divide that is motivating Barefoot's bill, but a partisan one.
It's not an accident, Stein said, that Republicans were introducing a bill to redraw county commissioner districts mere months after Democrats took control of all seven seats on the board.
Barefoot says he consulted with other members of the Wake County delegation, but Stein said Barefoot's bill took him by surprise.
As for aligning county commissioner seats with school board districts, Stein said, "They drew those school board districts for maximum party gerrymandering."
Wake County was one of the few bright spots for North Carolina Democrats during fall elections. Victories in the effectively at-large county commissioner races contrasted with close losses in legislative campaigns run in districts redrawn by Republican majorities in 2011.
"They don't like the choice that Wake County voters made in the last election, so they're going to disregard them by redrawing the districts," Stein said. "I'm pretty upset because the voters of Wake County are being disrespected."
Barefoot said his bill ensures more Wake County voices will be heard. Many communities, he said, don't have a representative who they will see around town or who will necessarily share their concerns.
"The real question the Democrats have to ask themselves is whether they are going to be opposed to a bill that increases representation for the citizens of Wake County," Barefoot said.
Should it move, and there's reason to believe top Senate lawmakers will push the legislation through the chamber, Barefoot's bill would be the second high-profile bill redistricting a local government board this session. On Thursday, the Senate Redistricting Committee is due to hold a public hearing on a bill redrawing the lines for the Greensboro City Council that has engendered much opposition from residents and council members there.