Public comments on maps wrap up

In its third and final six-hour public comment meeting, the Joint Redistricting committee heard some of the most colorful comments yet on its proposed new voting maps.

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Rucho Redistricting
Laura Leslie

The Joint Redistricting committee didn’t hear much tonight it hadn’t heard before. But at least in the Eastern meeting (Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Rocky Mount), the comments were a bit more colorful than in meetings past.

Raleigh resident Greg Flynn spoke from Wilmington, near where he’s on vacation, because, he said, “It appears there is no part of North Carolina, no matter how remote, that cannot be drawn into a congressional district with Wake County.”

Flynn took particular issue with the tortured lines of new House districts proposed for Wake County: “It’s as if some dentist tried to floss between two Republican districts to remove the Democratic debris,” he said. (Senate Redistricting chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, is a dentist.) He described another district near Fayetteville as resembling the merging of entities in “The Fly.”

“Please go back to the drawing board and find a straight edge, or at least a French curve,” Flynn said, “because these plans give gerrymandering a bad name.”

In Fayetteville, Wendy Michener said she was “shocked” to see the proposed maps for Cumberland County. “We’ve always been chopped up in small pieces, but what you’ve done to us is amazing. We look like a road accident,” she told the committee.

Joining Michener in Cumberland County was small businessman Andrew Quarter. “I think we might need to call Ghostbusters, because it looks like Cumberland County’s been slimed,” Quarter told the committee, adding that Senate District 21 “is a jellyfish.”

Locals fight back

The committee heard from more than an half-dozen local officials who don’t like the way the new map would split towns and communities between different districts, diluting their political power.

The list of unhappy mayors who testified tonight in the Eastern meeting included Wilmington’s Bill Saffo, Wendell’s Harold Broadwell (who also spoke for the mayors of Zebulon and Knightdale), and Scotland Neck’s James Mills, who was less circumspect in his criticism than his fellow mayors. “If there is any justice,” said Mills, a Democrat, “the public will reward the GOP with another hundred years in the wilderness.”

The committee also heard from dozens of everyday citizens upset about the division of their communities. Many spoke from Rocky Mount, where the new map would divide Wilson and Nash from Edgecombe. “I’m not sure I understand exactly what a ‘community of interest’ is,” said Greg Gregory of Wilson, but he argued the “Tri-county area” should qualify.

Women, minorities protest

Quite a few speakers this evening protested the number of women targeted in House and Senate GOP maps. On the House side, women make up 27% of all House lawmakers and 42% of House Democrats, but they're 53% of the Dems double-bunked with other lawmakers. On the Senate side, women make up only 12% - six of fifty - of the incumbents. But three of the six (two of them Democrats) are also double-bunked. 

Some commenters also accused Republican mapmakers of sweeping African-American voters into a handful of districts. Under the current plans, more than 47% of African-American voters in NC would be put into 11 of 50 Senate districts, with 52% contained in 27 House districts, leaving around 75% of legislative districts without a substantial African-American voting bloc. Sidney Dunston of Raleigh called that "repulsive," saying, "This is simply a lesson in Resegregation 101.”  

Not all negative

The feedback tonight wasn’t entirely negative. Jim Proctor, Edgecombe GOP chairman, pointed out that “redistricting is always a messy and unpleasant process.”

Proctor said the Democrats’ maps from 2001 were even more gerrymandered than the GOP proposal. “Where was the outrage we’ve heard today?” he asked, describing it as “little more than the pot calling the kettle black.”

Many others, even if their comments were critical, thanked the committee for the hard work it’s done on the map so far.

But others were more cynical, like Dolores Gibbs in Fayetteville. “Nobody plays completely fair. If I’m an elected official, I’m gonna do what’s best for me, what’s in my interest, so I can keep getting elected,” Gibbs said. “Might as well call an ace an ace.”

"Change the process"

That’s the sort of cynicism that some said showed the need for a non-partisan redistricting process.

Dave Burton of Cary was one of many who asked lawmakers to pass a measure changing redistricting in the future. He praised the GOP for having a more open process than in past redistricting cycles. “Unfortunately, that’s not a very high bar,” he added.

Burton said allowing politicians to draw their own districts presents an inherent conflict of interest while disenfranchising voters who live in “safe” districts. “We might as well grant lifetime appointments and dispense with the pretense,” Burton said.

A measure passed by the House, House Bill 824, would set up a non-partisan committee to redraw the maps in 2021. Republicans sponsored and backed such plans in the past when they were in the minority, but Senator Rucho said tonight he doesn't expect the Senate will take it up this year. 

The Eastern meeting wrapped up a few minutes shy of its 9pm end time. New congressional maps are expected out Tuesday, and rumor has it new House maps may be in the works as well. Those are likely to be unveiled by Thursday, when the committee starts debate on the maps in earnest.

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