by Eric Ginsburg
It would be tough for an outsider to understand Republican state Rep. Jon Hardister’s reasons for publicly opposing, then voting for, and then voting against state Sen. Trudy Wade’s plans to reconfigure Greensboro City Council elections by reading the vote tallies on the various formations of Wade’s brainchild.
But sitting at Stumble Stilskins in downtown Greensboro, pint of Red Oak beer in hand, Hardister explained his rationale last week.“This has been the toughest issue I’ve ever been faced with,” he said off the bat.
Wade’s bill has evolved and changed so much over time — different maps, different bills, etc. — that his position has shifted out of necessity, too. At first, Hardister opposed the plan because he didn’t like the initial map and received an outpouring of opposition from Greensboro residents. He previously said he would only support it if the issue was approved by a voter referendum. But he never fundamentally opposed a district system, Hardister said.
He managed conservative Chris Lawyer’s 2011 at-large city council campaign, which taught him how hard — and expensive — it can be to run citywide. Lawyer and other conservatives have struggled to win any of the at-large seats in the last two elections, though Danny Thompson won one of the three positions in 2009.
“I’m not against the district system,” Hardister said. “I think there’s some benefit to it. I can see both sides of it.”
Ultimately he voted for a revised map that included eight districts instead of seven — the map that was ultimately approved by the NC General Assembly. With the bill only allowing the mayor to vote in case of a tie, eight districts means it is more likely the mayor will be able to vote than seven, Hardister said.
The 8-1 plan functions well in Winston-Salem, he said — Hardister researched how the Camel City functions and said people there are happy with it. Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said it’s a moot point because there hasn’t been any controversy about Greensboro’s 5-3-1 system and the real issue is lack of democratic, local input in the process.
He can see the wisdom of taking some political pressure off the mayor by alleviating the need to vote on every item, Hardister said. But Vaughan sees it as a move to neuter the mayor’s power.
When Hardister voted for the bill last week, it failed 50-53. After Wade’s loss, the Republicans recessed to caucus, and returned less than an hour later to re-vote. This time the bill passed — even though Hardister voted against it — and quickly went to the Senate where it was approved.
Hardister said he didn’t like the motion to reconsider because the bill had already gone through the proper channels and failed.
“It just didn’t feel right to me,” he said. “I’m glad it passed but I really wish the process was better.”
Hardister voted “no” on the motion to reconsider as well as the bill itself in the final state House vote.
Nobody twisted his arm or intimidated him to vote in favor of the bill he said, but some of that — and horse-trading — are “a political reality,” he said. Hardister, who had been vocally critical of the redistricting plan, admitted that his bills haven’t moved in the Senate even though they aren’t controversial, but nobody has said anything about a quid pro quo, he said.
Vaughan said it is clear threats were made by the Republican leadership in the General Assembly after the 50-53 loss on the bill.
“It was obvious that arms were twisted and threats were made, and that’s how we lost it,” she said.
Even though the state passed the council reconfiguration, Vaughan said: “I really think we won.”
“We won this fair and square in the House,” she continued. “Sen. Wade had to stoop to combining it with another bill, and in the House, we beat it on the concurrence issue, and then it went to the committee and we beat it on the floor 50-53….We lost it to the threats and arm-twisting. That’s hardball politics. What happened really was politics at its worst.”
Ultimately, Hardister said he had to make the hard decision and vote his conscience twice. Hardister said he isn’t sure about the best way to redistrict a local government, but said it isn’t unusual to redistrict without a referendum. He doesn’t think the NC General Assembly should draw its own districts — Hardister is pushing for an independent commission — and so it wouldn’t make sense for city council to redistrict itself, either.
Vaughan said that point is irrelevant because council didn’t require any redistricting in the first place.
Despite Hardister’s justifications for supporting the bill — even though he was on the losing side of the final two votes — he struggled with the decision.
“It was hard for me to press ‘Yes’ because it’s a tough issue, it’s emotional, but I feel comfortable with my decision,” he said.