Hard hearing

Hear me out: (Top and middle) About 50 people attended the redistricting hearing at A-B Tech, including Athena Blakely (bottom). She worries that the new maps will limit her ability to advocate for her autistic children because they would live in the 11th District and she would live in the 10th, even though they all live in Asheville. Cecil Bothwell (left) and Lindsey Simerly (right) listen to her tell her story. photos by Jonathan Welch

“Insane.” “Biased.” “Cynical.” Those are just a few of the words outraged Western North Carolina residents used during a July 7 public hearing to describe a proposal to move most of Asheville to the 10th Congressional District, leaving roughly two-thirds of Buncombe County in the 11th District.

Released July 1 by the first Republican-controlled General Assembly in 140 years, the plan would shift almost all of Asheville’s reliably Democratic voters from the 11th District, currently represented by Democrat Heath Shuler, to the conservative 10th, presently the domain of Republican Patrick McHenry. Some 50 residents signed up to speak at A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium. Some tired of waiting, but almost without exception, those who did speak called it a blatantly partisan move to boost Republican power.

"The Republican majority in the Legislature is politicizing the redistricting map in a way that is almost unheard of in North Carolina's modern political history," asserted Hickory resident Cliff Moone, the N.C. Democratic Party’s 10th District chair. "These are undeniably partisan maps indicating a clearly biased attempt to protect Republican candidates from having to engage in fair and competitive elections."

Buncombe County, noted Moone, isn't the only one the proposal slices up. "That the plan splits 15 more counties than the current maps is indicative of the not-so-subtle political gerrymandering at work here," he charged.

Hickory, a Catawba County town of nearly 40,000 that’s historically been in the 10th District, meets a similar fate, "creating an absurdity by including a tiny fraction [of the city's population], 84 people, in the sprawling 11th District," Moone proclaimed.

In a joint statement, the two Republican redistricting chairs, Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis, said the proposal splits urban counties across the state that are "best represented by multiple members of Congress. Moreover, creating multiple districts within an urban county makes it less likely that congressional districts in 2020 will experience the significant population shifts that make the 2001 plan unbalanced."

Compromised?

Buncombe resident Lael Gray concurred with Moone, saying her "rights as a voter have been compromised by this proposal."

Describing herself as an independent voter who was once a Republican, Gray lambasted her former party for being "so desperate to seize power, you have now sacrificed all integrity, discarded any regard for common sense, and chosen to reveal your absolute contempt for the will of the people.

"There's still time for you to reconsider this plan, and I urge you to do so," she declared.

Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell, who plans to challenge Shuler in the 11th District Democratic primary regardless of which way the lines are drawn, said the new maps don't accurately reflect the area’s geography and history. Mountainous Buncombe County, he argued, has no business in a Piedmont district that includes Charlotte’s suburbs.

"Carving Asheville out of the 11th District is completely irrational,” said Bothwell. “It's been proposed by Republican legislators in Raleigh who apparently believe that the world is as flat as the maps they have drawn." Asheville, he noted, is WNC’s economic, transportation and medical hub. "Those legislators … have forgotten that the Eastern Continental Divide separates their homes from ours."

Garnering applause as he left the auditorium, Bothwell was stopped by Asheville resident Athena Blakely. Tears in her eyes, Blakely said her severely autistic children divide their time between her home and an alternative family living center that the new maps would place in a different district from her home. "When I pick up the phone to call a representative to advocate for my children, they're not going to listen to me,” she fretted. “It's going to affect my ability to effectively advocate for my children."

Declaring electoral war on the lawmakers behind the proposal, Blakely declared that as an unaffiliated voter, she's "their worst nightmare," threatening to rally all her unaffiliated friends to vote out Republicans next year.

Meeting format questioned

Furious about the public hearing's format, other local residents and officials joined Blakely in the lobby. Asheville speakers found themselves sharing air time with those at eight other locations across the state, as Republican leaders in Raleigh took turns directing the cameras to diverse sites. As a result, there was up to an hour’s wait between Asheville speakers. Three hours into the meeting, only six had been allowed to weigh in.

"For them to call this a public hearing is a travesty," declared Kathleen Balogh, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of North Carolina. "They're hearing some people’s voices, but it really is not an opportunity for the average citizen to stand up and let the legislators know how we really feel about how the maps have been drawn. We're not really being given an opportunity when you're putting the whole state online at the same time."

David Gantt, who chairs the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, agreed, saying, "I can't believe they're doing it this way. It's so messed up. … When you introduce the maps the Friday before Fourth of July, have a hearing less than a week later at 3 in the afternoon, and then have it across the state instead of each community having one separately, it just shows a total lack of interest in what people want."

Rep. Susan Fisher sounded a similar note. Despite serving on the House Redistricting Committee, the Buncombe County Democrat revealed that she and other members were given no input into the redistricting proposal, which she said came directly from Rucho and Lewis and their staff.

How do you spell success?

Sen. Andrew Brock, vice chair of the Senate’s Redistricting Committee, oversaw the local hearing, which he called a "pretty good success." Everyone in attendance, he pointed out, was given a chance to speak on the record; they could also submit their statements online.

Brock and the Republican leadership found an ally in Buncombe resident William Thomas, the lone local speaker to voice support for the proposal.

"The election of 2010 gave the General Assembly the duty to do the job fairly, and they have done so," he observed, adding that redistricting should remain in the hands of legislators rather than an independent commission, as some have proposed. "If a person is breathing, that person is partisan about many things, politics not the least of them," Thomas argued. "Please don't create an independent panel: Do the job that you were elected to do."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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