Republicans are the party of small government, with one caveat: as long as it’s the opposition party’s government. When it comes to their own government, their appetite for maximizing power seems to know no limit.
What do Republicans do when the people elect local sheriffs who are committed to protecting immigrant communities? Handcuff ’em!
When the people elect school board members who are committed to educational equity? Put ’em in timeout!
When Democrats run the board in local municipal elections? Knock over the table and rewrite the rules.
In case you haven’t heard, Reps. Donny Lambeth and Debra Conrad, two Republican lawmakers from suburban Forsyth County, released three bills collectively aimed at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board and Winston-Salem City Council. One would switch school board elections to a staggered schedule, another would require the school board to get approval from the Republican-controlled Forsyth County Commission prior to redrawing school attendance lines, and another would completely overhaul the system of electing members of city council.The 300-some people who packed into First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue on Monday evening resoundingly told Democratic lawmakers, city council members, school board members and county commissioners that they want no part of it. The multiracial crowd was predominantly African-American — no surprise considering that the bills most directly affect black leadership — but it’s clear that Winston-Salem residents of all races consider this legislation an affront to the principle of home rule and self-governance. The Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, the pastor at First Baptist, said Lambeth and Conrad were invited to make the case for their bills, but declined to attend.
In an email to Triad City Beat on Tuesday, Lambeth downplayed the notion that considerations of race or political party played any part in the legislation.
Lambeth previously told the Winston-Salem Journal that the rationale for staggering school board members’ terms is to avoid having all the members replaced at one time.
“Staggered terms allow elections to have part elected but also allow incumbents to continue so there is continuity of experience,” he said. “All nine members up for election or re-election at the same time is not good public policy.”
But don’t voters have the opportunity to vote for incumbents if they’re happy with their representation, and don’t incumbents enjoy an advantage through superior name recognition?
Malishai Woodbury, a newly elected Democratic member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board whose colleagues elected her to chair the board, made her case on Monday against HB 490, which comes before the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday.
“The main problem I see is that if the people want an all-new school board, then that’s the will of the democracy, so I think you’re taking away the people’s vote when you try to fix the system versus letting it occur naturally,” she said.
Barbara Hanes Burke, another newly elected Democrat who was elected by her colleagues to serve as vice-chair, said there’s no mystery as to why Lambeth and Conrad want to force the school board to get permission from the county commission to change school attendance lines.
“I believe all of us see exactly why,” she said. “We ran on the platform of equity and making sure that it does exist in our school system. And I think we have some people that are afraid that we are going to make some decisions regarding our schools and making sure that they are more equitable all the way around. And I do believe that we are being blocked.”
As for HB 519, critics note that it reduces the number of majority-minority districts from four out of eight to two out of five, but most eyebrow-raising is that it triple-bunks Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, Councilwoman DD Adams and Councilwoman Annette Scippio.
“The outlines of that map draw all three African-American women on the city council into a single district,” Councilman Dan Besse observed. “That was not by happenstance. If you look at the outline of that district and look at the numbers in population between that district and the adjacent districts, the population of that single district is actually substantially higher than the population of the districts on either side, and the lines of that district bulge out to take in the homes of Council member [DD] Adams and Council member [Annette] Scippio.”
Lambeth said on Tuesday that legislative staff drew the map without regard to politics or race. The Republican lawmaker said he and Conrad started looking at Winston-Salem’s election format after the city requested legislative changes last fall to fill vacancies and found that Winston-Salem is an “outlier” compared to how other North Carolina cities conduct elections. Lambeth said the plan is modeled after Greensboro elections, and provided legislative research showing that Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Cary, High Point and Greenville all have at least one at-large member in addition to the mayor. Fayetteville is the only city in addition to Winston-Salem that currently uses a pure district system.
Conrad told TCB that she takes issue with the notion that the proposed election system would force three members to run against each other.
“The new design allows all incumbents to choose whether to run in a district or for one of the at-large seats,” Conrad said. “Two of the ladies may choose to run for two of the new at-large seats and I see no reason why they would not have an excellent chance of winning those seats. It is very possible to have all the current members of the city council win re-election under the new plan.”
And to give the proposed plan its due, while the proposed District 2 in northeast Winston-Salem is overpopulated based on the 2010 Census numbers, the proposed District 3 — also a minority-majority district — is underpopulated by almost exactly the same proportion. The map uses Business 40 as a dividing line between the two districts, so it upholds the “communities of interest” principle. Putting the two majority-minority districts together, they represent exactly 40 percent of the city’s population. The non-white population was 48.8 percent, based on the 2010 Census.
Sen. Trudy Wade attempted something similar in Greensboro in 2015, although ironically Wade sought to eliminate three at-large seats and expand the districts from five to eight. Similar to the proposed District 2 in northeast Winston-Salem, Wade’s bill overpopulated the majority African-American District 2 in northeast Greensboro and would have forced two African-American members to run against each other. The city and individual voters sued the state legislature, and a federal judge ultimately overturned the law. Judge Catherine Eagles wrote, “This is not a case where it is difficult to discern legislative motivation. As in [Raleigh Wake Citizens Association], all the credible evidence points in one direction: a ‘skewed, unequal redistricting’ intentionally designed to create a partisan advantage by increasing the weight of Republican-leaning voters and decreasing the weight to votes of Democratic-leaning voters.” She also found that the plan “violates the equal protection rights of the plaintiffs and all Greensboro voters.”
Mayor Allen Joines said council members will be meeting with a team of lawyers to explore their options for taking legal action if the Winston-Salem bill passes.
Rep. Lambeth and Conrad could learn a lesson at Sen. Wade’s expense.
“In Greensboro, the senator who introduced that bill is no longer in the state legislature,” Rep. Derwin Montgomery, a Democrat, observed on Monday night. “She lost her election.”