IN PRINT: Citizen Green — Gerrymandering: Insurance against voter discontent

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by Jordan Green

 

Last year, when the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly rammed through a raft of unpopular legislation, including measures widely perceived as assaults on public education, new restrictions on access to abortion and cuts to long-term unemployment benefits while refusing to expand Medicaid coverage, many North Carolinians vowed repudiation at the polls.

More recently, in the aftermath of the Duke Energy coal-ash spill in Eden, many citizens are questioning whether state government is too cozy with the utility it is tasked with regulating.

All of these issues should receive vigorous debate in the November election to determine the makeup of the two houses of our state legislature. But the election won’t be about education, healthcare, environmental protection or any other issues that matter to citizens because the contests have already been rigged by the party in power. Republican lawmakers took care of that when they implemented redistricting in 2011.

To use a well-known aphorism, partisan redistricting allows elected officials to choose their constituents rather than the other way around. It’s a process that’s not worthy of a democracy.

Democrats are unlikely to put much of a dent in the Republican supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly this year, and even if they could, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has shown little inclination to buck his party by exercising his veto.

Republicans hold 78 out of 120 seats in the House and 33 out of 50 in the Senate. You might infer from those numbers that roughly two out of three North Carolinians support Republican candidates; in fact, about 48 percent of votes for state legislators went to Democratic candidates two years ago. It should come as no surprise that support for Democratic state legislators at the polls correlated closely with President Obama’s share of North Carolina’s popular vote in 2012. The Republicans’ lopsided legislative majorities can be attributed to redistricting maps drawn to maximize GOP control.

The most significant shift in the state legislature can be expected in the May primary instead of the November general election.

The Democratic primary in Guilford County this year resembles what took place in neighboring Forsyth County two years ago.

By 2012, Sen. Linda Garrou, a white Democrat, had been drawn out of her Winston-Salem district by the Republican Party under the stated justification that a black candidate should have the opportunity to contend for her seat. State Rep. Larry Womble had planned to run, but was incapacitated in a car accident. Earline Parmon, then also a state representative, stepped into the breach and won the seat by prevailing over two other candidates in the Democratic primary. She’s running unopposed this year.

In Greensboro, the GOP undertook a similar gambit by “double-bunking” two white Democratic incumbents, Pricey Harrison and Maggie Jeffus, into the same district. Further undermining the two white incumbents, they were drawn into a district where black registered voters outnumbered their white counterparts in the Democratic electorate by more than two to one. In 2012, the first election after redistricting, Jeffus stood down and Harrison ran unopposed. Jim Kee, an African-American Democrat who formerly served on the Greensboro City Council, is challenging Harrison this year, raising the possibility of yet another white Democrat being forced into political retirement.

Parmon’s run for state Senate and Womble’s retirement two years ago sparked a spirited competition for their respective House seats, with Evelyn Terry ultimately winning the seat to represent District 71 and Ed Hanes Jr. prevailing in the District 72 race. Despite struggling to find her footing in her first term, Terry is running unopposed this year. So is Hanes, whose support for private-school vouchers runs against the state NAACP and Moral Monday movement, which has in many ways supplanted the Democratic Party as a progressive counterweight to the GOP.

Again, Guilford in 2014 resembles Forsyth in 2012. Two Democratic state lawmakers in Guilford County, Alma Adams and Marcus Brandon, are running for Congress, opening state House seats in Greensboro and High Point. The contest to replace Adams in District 58 has drawn Democrats Ralph C. Johnson, Tigress McDaniel, Dan Koenig and Kerry Graves. Brandon’s quest for higher office leaves the field open for Earl Jones to attempt to reclaim his seat representing District 60. But first he’ll have to get past David Small, the son of longtime political rival Dianne Bellamy-Small, and Cecil Brockman in the Democratic primary.

When it comes to the General Assembly, the most important election is the one scheduled for May 6.