As the North Carolina General Assembly gave final approval Tuesday to another set of districts for State House and Senate elections, I spent much of the day poring over the new maps, talking with lawmakers and other legislative observers, and rethinking some of the preliminary analysis I conducted Monday night as the districts were first being released. Not surprisingly, the end of the special redistricting session coincided with a promise from Senate Republican leader Patrick Ballantine and former House Majority leader Leo Daughtry, among others, to challenge the redistricting process and its progeny in court.
While all this was going on, I also had the interesting experience of being criticized by Democrats and allies of House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan for yesterday’s Daily Journal column because I was too critical of the new districts — while simultaneously being criticized by Republican stalwarts for not being critical enough of the new districts.
Sorry, but I call them as I see them (you can doff your pliable metallic coif now). Nor have I, upon further reflection, changed much of my initial reaction to the redistricting process. It was rushed, fundamentally unfair, alternately mendacious and malicious, and no doubt frustrating for all concerned. The final product, the House and Senate maps, have some good points and some bad points, quite apart from their partisan import, but also seem likely to undergo significant legal challenge on both procedural and factual grounds.
Overall, from the standpoint of voters seeking more compact, recognizable, rational, and competitive districts, the outcome wasn’t radically different from the interim maps instigated by Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins last year. Within the constraints imposed by the N.C. Supreme Court — and possibly outside the constraints of the federal Voting Rights Act, coming soon to a federal court near your — lawmakers enacted districts that are somewhat less hospitable to Republicans and future Republican gains than the interim maps were. This shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone, given that Democrats were firmly in control of the process in the Senate and exercised the preponderance of control over the process in the House.
Here are some additional thoughts I have on the issue today, in no particular order:
• In addition to the issues I discussed yesterday regarding the Georgia v. Ashcroft case and its impact on the Voting Rights Act dispute over the new North Carolina districts, there’s a factual distinction. In Georgia, African-American state legislators defended the redistricting action that diluted the black voting strength of some minority-leaning districts in order to increase the influence of black voters in nearby districts with white representation. Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the five-justice majority in the case, took note of this fact in her decision. But in our case, several prominent black legislators have expressed either concern or outright dismay at what was done with black voters, particularly since it was done with no advance warning or serious floor debate.
• I’ve updated and somewhat revised my analysis of the competitiveness of the districts since yesterday, based on some additional data and conversations with some lawmakers and observers. On the House side, I now consider 52 seats to be safely or moderately Democratic and 52 seats to be safely or moderately Republican. The remaining 16 swing seats can further be divided into three groups: seven districts that tilt somewhat Democratic, six that tilt somewhat Republican, and three that are pure toss-ups. The latter group includes districts that were competitive last time, too: District 25 (Republican Bill Daughtridge), District 77 (Democrat Lorene Coates), and District 111 (Republican Tim Moore).
On the Senate side, I now count 23 seats as safely or moderately Democratic, 22 that are safely or moderately Republican, and five swing seats. The latter group again include some old reliables: District 2 (Democrat Scott Thomas) and District 6 (Democrat Cecil Hargett) on the coast, District 16 (Democrat Eric Reeves) in Wake County, District 24 (Republican Hugh Webster) in the Piedmont, and District 46 (Democrat Walter Dalton) in the foothills just west of Charlotte.
As you can see, the playing field now tilts a bit more Democratic than it did in 2002 in the House and Senate. On the other hand, this is nothing like the grotesque gerrymander perpetrated by Democrats in 2001 that led to the Stephenson v. Bartlett case in the first place. Republicans can properly claim that a more neutral approach to redistricting — it wouldn’t even require a GOP-leaning one — would have increased their chances of winning seats. Their districts have more people in them than the Democrats’ districts, on average, and the latter’s choices clearly erred on the side of moving black voters out of safe Democratic seats and into neighboring, more competitive ones to help white Democrats. But should these maps survive the coming legal challenges, Republicans aren’t exactly dead meat. If they win all House seats in their home territory, plus all the swings that “tilt” to the GOP, and protect Daughtridge and Moore, they’ll have 59 seats. Additional victories in half of the remaining swing seats would net them a 63-seat majority. Of course, Democrats have also have an obvious opportunity to regain the majority. On the Senate side, Republicans will have to win their 22 “home” seats, defend Webster, and then beat three of the four endangered Democratic incumbents. It will take strong candidates and a better fundraising operation than has been evident in the past to accomplish this.
• Some Republican freshmen who sided with Richard Morgan in the intra-party battle over the speakership last year ended up with no apparent benefits in the redistricting process, and in several cases got seats that are quite a bit less congenial. Rep. Stephen LaRoque of Lenoir County is now in a Democratic district altogether. John Sauls remains in a tough District 51. Pender’s Carolyn Justice lands in a Republican District 16, but now much of it is in New Hanover, so a primary challenge is no longer unthinkable.
• More generally, Republican Joanne Bowie in House 57 ends up in moderately Democratic territory and Republican Sam Ellis in House 39 ends up in slightly Democratic territory. Both used to have safe seats. Democratic freshman Jim Harrell (the younger Harrell pol in Surry) ends up in slightly Republican territory in House 90. On the Senate side, Democratic freshman Joe Sam Queen remains in a moderately Republican seat in District 47 in the mountains, but it was also Republican ground in 2002 when he won the seat.
• Several people have commented about the odd shape of Senate 18, where longtime Democratic incumbent Wib Gulley will now run in a district that includes part of Durham, where he was once mayor, and all of Chatham and Lee counties. The intention appears to be to weaken next-door neighbor Ellie Kinnaird, a liberal from Orange County who knocked off insider-favorite Howard Lee last year. Without Chatham, she will now have to run in rural and dissimilar Person County, possibly setting up the chance for a primary challenge.
• Asheville representatives Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, and Wilma Sherrill, a Republican, were reportedly upset that the new maps split up precincts in the city. Nesbitt’s fellow Democrat, freshman Bruce Goforth, was much less upset given that the device probably strengthens his position. In any event, Nesbitt continues to join with a few other dissenting Democrats in challenge Speaker Jim Black’s decisions, while Sherrill is, I’m told, furious with Morgan. If true, this would have Morgan illustrating the political version of the old line that when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
• Similarly, Rep. Connie Wilson of Charlotte, who has been working with Morgan, found herself lumped into a district with fellow Republican Ed McMahon, a Morgan foe. She had requested not to have to run against McMahon but got the unwelcome surprise Monday. So she gave Morgan an unwelcome surprise, too: she announced plans to retire from the seat in deference to McMahon, if he wants to run. Not exactly what the co-speaker had in mind, I’m guessing.
• Down east, a couple of Democrats appear to have been sacrificed for the good of the party as a whole. Freshman Rick Glazier and longtime number Alex Warner are now in the same Cumberland district. Glazier is running but Warner hasn’t decided yet. He told the Fayetteville newspaper that he thinks he can win the district against the urban liberal Glazier. Similarly, freshman Charles Johnson saw his district go poof in and around Pitt County. He’s now in the same district with Marion McLawhorn, who’s probably not going anywhere.
Finally, David Rice of the Winston-Salem Journal is reporting that legislative leaders are already granting the possibility that the 2004 primaries for House and Senate — and probably other offices, including governor and Congress — won’t be held as scheduled in May. This is an important development and also a poor reflection on said legislative leaders, who were challenged on this very point a few weeks ago by the Stephenson vs. Bartlett plaintiffs. There is no excuse for the delay, which complicates the planning of Democratic and Republican candidates who had a legitimate expectation that the state’s electoral process would be respected and followed. I’m not necessarily a fan of May primaries. But that’s the law in North Carolina. Foot-dragging and political games by Morgan and Black could now cause the lawful election to be delayed.
By the way, another issue brought up by the Stephenson plaintiffs has turned out to be important. The new redistricting legislation includes a provision for a three-judge panel in Wake Superior Court to rule on future redistricting litigation. But because the plaintiffs already went before Judge Knox Jenkins on related matters, the prior litigation is still going and can be continued in his court. As I understand it, there is case law to the effect that the legislature cannot strip jurisdiction of a case from a particular court after that court has already issued decisions. If true, the Democrats’ attempt to change the venue might have been a device to put issues unrelated to the Stephenson case in what they would regard as a friendlier judicial clime. But they can’t mean the Republicans’ planned Voting Rights Act complaints — those will be filed in federal court.
If this isn’t enough political scuttlebutt for you, don’t worry. There is much, much more to the redistricting story to come, and you’ll always be able to find it here at Carolina Journal in our special redistricting section.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.