RALEIGH — Members of the legislature’s joint redistricting committee took rhetorical shots Tuesday during public comments given in Raleigh and at six remote locations across the state. But lawmakers received very little information that will guide them as they redraw legislative maps under a court order.
“Out of nearly five hours [of comments] we probably got literally 20 to 30 minutes of people that legitimately offered us constructive input on the maps,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, House chairman of the redistricting committee, told Carolina Journal.
“I really wish more people would have engaged on the map itself. There were a lot who simply took this opportunity, which is their right, to take digs at the legislature,” Lewis said.
Like other Republicans, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, the Senate redistricting committee chairman, was clearly distressed at the level of incivility and serious accusations from speakers offering testimony.
Dozens of speakers denounced Republican lawmakers, calling them white supremacists or power-mad.
“We’ve been called Nazis, and Klansmen, and everything else,” Hise told CJ. “There’s a definite organized opposition that is probably as concerned about other issues that are going on right now than it is about these [maps], and want to meld the two together.”
Lawmakers and principals in the Covington v. North Carolina case also raised the specter of additional legal challenges. A three-judge federal court panel last year ruled 28 legislative districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered. In July, the court ordered the General Assembly to present new legislative maps by Sept. 1 for the 2018 election cycle.
The judges said the lines relied too heavily on race. But they cited no evidence it was done with ill intent or for discriminatory purposes.
On Wednesday, legislators were reviewing transcripts of the five-hour session. The Senate redistricting committee meets again Thursday, and its House counterpart Friday.
Hise said he hopes Democrats would engage in the process rather than just go to court as they have in the past.
“I think the North Carolina path to drawing districts is always through litigation. But we feel very confident with what we’ve heard from the courts that if they apply the same standards they’ve given before, that we have complied with the standards,” he said.
Irving Joyner, a lawyer representing the Covington plaintiffs, had little optimism lawmakers would pay heed to Tuesday’s public hearing. “I think it’s just window dressing, and that’s why we really haven’t participated in them up until now,” Joyner told CJ.
“We also are in the process of looking at these maps that the state has just released, and trying to find some racial data that would help us to better understand the impact that those lines are likely to have on the African-American community,” Joyner said.
The analysis will dictate whether the plaintiffs ask the three-judge panel to accept the maps, or again ask the court to appoint a special court master to draw new maps. Joyner said he questions whether the case would be resolved quickly.
The Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is a party in this and other election lawsuits. The new maps must be in place before the start of candidate filing in February, said spokesman Patrick Gannon.
“The state board will immediately make the parties aware if significant concerns arise about any aspect of elections administration,” and the ability to carry out fair elections, Gannon said.
“It’s not surprising that the rhetoric as expressed [Tuesday] in the hearings was as bombastic as it was,” said Joe Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, which closely tracks state elections and district makeups.
Opponents are angry, he said, and they think the maps are unfair. But Stewart said a larger issue looms for Democrats.
“If you don’t have a resolute message, if you don’t have strong candidates, and they don’t have the resources to reach voters, I’m not sure the maps are really the biggest challenges that are facing people,” Stewart said.
Most speakers at Tuesday’s hearings complained about incumbent protection being built into the redistricting. Whether that is right or wrong, Stewart said, it is a time-honored tradition of partisan politics.
Republicans want the maps to protect a GOP supermajority in both houses of the legislature, but a national Democratic wave election could spoil any well-laid plans, he said. Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 running in districts Democrats drew to favor their party.
And while the Voting Rights Act has been at the center of the Covington case, Stewart noted a curious aspect to that debate.
When Democrats were in power a decade ago, they drew districts including just enough black voters to secure Democratic victories, but not necessarily enough to elect black candidates, he said. Republicans packed more black voters in targeted districts. As a result, more black Democrats were elected.