The first North Carolina legislative and congressional redistricting maps drawn by Republicans since Reconstruction have passed the General Assembly, and they have been greeted with caterwauling from Democrats claiming they give an unfair advantage to their opponents.
The media has largely allowed Democrats to articulate these complaints without mentioning their party’s long, sordid affair with political gerrymandering – a love that did not end until they realized their party could no longer control the process.
The years 2000 through 2004 were filled with lawsuits and backdoor wheeling and dealing over lines drawn by a Democratic majority. Those controlling the process ignored complaints from Republicans and even Democratic African American legislators.
2001 presented Democratic lawmakers with an opportunity to wipe out the 7-5 Republican Congressional majority and inroads into the legislature that Republicans had gained. Unlike Republicans in 2011, the legislative leadership didn’t even bother to present their maps as “fair and legal.”
Referring to creation of the 2001 Congressional maps, Scott Famien, then- Executive Chair of the Democratic Party said, “The General Assembly will pass a map that is essentially a 7 Democrat, 5 Republican, and 1 competitive district. That’s one of the benefits of having a majority in the Legislature.”
Of course, Brad Miller, who chaired the redistricting committee in the state Senate, infamously tailored a bizarre, expansive Congressional district that just happened to elect him to Congress. In a Slate.com ranking, four of the most egregious 20 Congressional gerrymanders in the nation were from North Carolina’s 2001 process, including Miller’s new seat.
The state legislative maps created in 2001 were even more troublesome. African American Democrats revolted at the prospect of a map with very few majority-minority districts, endangering the map’s passage in the closely divided House. Democratic Speaker Jim Black told the public that the map was drawn to ensure that Democrats would have control of the body, and that giving African Americans more seats would endanger that majority.
“Every time you change one district, you change the districts around it. Every time you do that, you change the balance of power in the state,” said Black. “I personally believe African-American citizens will be better off with Democratic leaders for the next 10 to 20 years.”
African American Democrat Alma Adams did not agree with Black.
“We’re not going to support anything that reduces African American influence,” said Adams. “In fact, we would like something to increase influence.”
Many of the same voices calling for increased numbers of minority-majority seats in 2001 are now decrying the Republican maps for doing just that.
Because the 2001 Democratic map violated the Whole County Provision of the North Carolina Constitution, the state Supreme Court struck down the legislative maps in the Stephenson decisions. The 2002 election maps were drawn by a judge, but Democrats took the opportunity to redraw the maps in 2003. The process was done with no transparency. Lawmakers were barely able to see their districts before voting on them.
The maps were effective in keeping Democrats in power. Despite winning the statewide popular vote multiple times, Republicans were unable to take control of either house of the General Assembly or the Congressional delegation.
Democrats have always been keenly aware of the advantage redistricting gave them. As late as 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue told Democrats at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner how important it was that they hold onto the General Assembly in a redistricting year.
“We must have Democrats redraw those maps,” she said.
Redistricting will always be politicized, especially when lawmakers can influence how their districts are drawn. It is obvious that Republicans have used this year’s redistricting process for their own advantage, even if they have had increased opportunities for public input. However, Republicans did not create this process out of thin air; they are simply utilizing a process that has always been used (and abused) by the other side.
Neal Inman is an intern at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh (nccivitas.org)
This op-ed originally appeared in Wake Weekly and the Lincoln Tribune the week of July 24-30, 2011