Buncombe County residents upset about proposed new Statehouse districts aired their gripes at a July 18 public hearing in A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium (see “A House Divided”).
“Less than a quarter of Buncombe County’s population is Republican,” noted Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger, who was Democratic Rep. Patsy Keever‘s campaign manager last year. “Yet they’ve drawn the districts so there will likely be two Republicans and one Democrat in the state Legislature. That’s not what representative democracy looks like.”
Holding most of Asheville’s reliably Democratic voters, the new 114th District pits Keever and fellow Democrat Susan Fisher against each other, potentially forcing one of them out of office.
“Imagine if, after the World Cup ends, the winning team’s able to choose which players … they don’t want to compete against the following season,” continued Reisinger. “Imagine if Japan told the U.S. team they now have to choose between their all-star striker or goalie. … The playing field has become clearly unfair.”
Beth Trigg, Fisher’s 2010 campaign manager, echoed that sentiment, calling the proposal “part of a clear attempt to pack minority and Democratic voters for political gain.”
Some 20 other speakers similarly blasted the GOP-controlled General Assembly for “violating the voting rights of every minority in Buncombe County” and “breeding confusion among voters.” Cliff Moone, state Democratic Party’s 10th Congressional District chair, summed up the mood of the crowd, charging, “When Republicans say they want limited government, what they mean is they want government limited to them!”
Rep. Nelson Dollar oversaw the local hearing, mostly listening silently and seemingly unfazed by the heated rhetoric. In his introductory remarks, the Wake County Republican, who serves on the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, said, “We do believe these maps are fair, legal and in compliance with federal laws and regulations.” The hearing, he continued, was “part of an unprecedented effort to hold public hearings and give people a say … on the maps.”
The format differed notably from the July 7 congressional redistricting hearing, where infuriated attendees waited up to an hour between local speakers as videoconferencing switched to participants elsewhere in the state. The July 18 hearing was exclusively for residents of this area; their recorded comments will be made available to committee members, Dollar explained.
He found an ally in Kaye Culberson, who praised GOP lawmakers for letting the 2009 sales-tax increase expire despite the state’s massive budget shortfall.
“Some of the previous speakers have suggested that the legislators should be ashamed of themselves for redrawing district maps to the advantage of the majority,” she said. “But I believe the maps … allow the present Legislature to continue the work it’s begun with an unprecedented commitment to get it right, to get our fiscal house in order, to set this state heading in the right direction.”
Tom Coulson of Common Cause (a nonpartisan group that advocates for open, accountable government) urged state senators to pass legislation recently approved by the House that would establish a nonpartisan commission for the 2021 redistricting.
“We objected to the means and process of redistricting when the blue planet was ascended, and we object to it now that the red planet ascends,” Coulson explained. “Over the years, the power of the parties has become an end to itself. Gerrymandering is just one of the manifestations of this phenomenon. The result has been corruption of the democratic process, justified by excuses. We want a commission and nonpartisan staff to do it.”
Keever, meanwhile, thanked her supporters, saying: “There’s people that are passionate about this and care enough to come and want to be on the record for when it goes to trial. But I don’t think it will change the vote in the House next week. I thought there might be a few more people,” she continued, “but I know a lot of people can’t come out because they’re working. And they could have handled it better. … I think people are confused about what these hearings are about.”
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt said he’s OK with how his district was redrawn, but he agreed with his former Republican opponent, RL Clark, who urged lawmakers at the hearing to abide by wording in the state constitution that says districts shouldn’t split counties.
“I agree that we should have multi-member districts in whole counties,” said the Buncombe County Democrat, adding: “However, the Republican Supreme Court in the 2000 redistricting wrote what I think was a bad opinion, saying, “No, you’ve got to have single-member districts in the state.’ That’s how you got single-member districts.”
Nesbitt also assailed the House plan, saying, “It’s obvious what they’ve done is try to pack all the city residents into one district to minimize their impact. That’s going to cause divisive representation; it’s going to pit the county against the city. We have never done it that way, because we felt like putting the city in more districts was better for all of us than putting them in one.”
He also hinted at possible legal arguments against the GOP proposal to shift most of Asheville and Buncombe County’s registered Democrats into the safely conservative 10th Congressional District, which encompasses Gaston County and Charlotte’s suburbs.
“What they actually did is take the only identifiable minority population west of Charlotte … out of a district where they held substantial influence and put them in a district where they won’t,” Nesbitt maintained. “We’re going to be making some arguments that disenfranchising minorities, no matter how small of a group, should be against the law.”
Editor’s note: The day after the hearing, GOP leaders released revised congressional maps that shifted an additional 20,510 Buncombe County residents into the 10th District. On July 20, however, they reverted to the original proposal.
That same day, they released slightly revised Statehouse districts for Buncombe County shuffling 1,741 south Buncombe residents out of the originally proposed 116th District; most would move to the 115th; the 114th would gain 32 voters.
Photo by Jonathan Welch