Wade redistricting plan goes to trial without defense

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An attempt by state Sen. Trudy Wade (left) to overhaul Greensboro elections has been declared unconstitutional.

Opponents of a redistricting law authored by state Sen. Trudy Wade savage the plan as an underhanded Republican power grab.

“This is like a boxing match with only one fighter,” the Rev. Nelson Johnson observed during the afternoon break on Monday for a trial to determine the fate of a state law shepherded by Sen. Trudy Wade to impose a new election system on the city of Greensboro.

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, representing the county board of elections as the defendant, told US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles that his client’s only interest was in administering “fair and impartial elections,” and he had no opinion on the validity of the redistricting plan passed by the General Assembly.

“I continue to be concerned we’re the only party sitting over here [at the defense table],” he said.

The General Assembly and state Department of Justice have opted to not defend the lawsuit filed by a number of Greensboro residents and the city of Greensboro, and nine so-called “defendant-intervenors” — including former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, former state lawmaker and former Councilman Earl Jones and former Councilman Jim Kee — did not appear in court to make the case for the plan.

Current Greensboro City Council electoral map

Opponents portrayed the redistricting plan and election system approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly during testimony on Monday as a project single-handedly driven by Sen. Trudy Wade, a Guilford County lawmaker who previously served on Greensboro City Council, with no apparent input from constituents and justified with an ever-shifting set of claims that didn’t hold up under scrutiny. Two Democratic lawmakers, three current council members and representatives of civic organizations representing both white and African-American residents testified that citizens overwhelmingly opposed the plan when it first came to light in February 2015.

Redistricting plan proposed by Sen. Trudy Wade

If upheld, the election plan would eliminate three at-large seats and replace the five-district map with a pure representational system with eight districts. And under the new plan, the mayor would only get a vote on council in the event of a tie. The current hybrid system allows voters to weigh to influence the selection of five out of nine seats, including the mayor, the three at-large positions and a district representative. Several witnesses called by the plaintiffs testified that citizens appreciate the current system. Anna Fesmire, a former board chair of the League of Women Voters, testified that once when she reached out to nine council members to advocate for a conservation overlay the only ones who responded were her district representative and the three at-large council members. She said under an eight-district map she doubted anyone except her district representative would call her back.

“I felt most people opposed the plan for the same reason as I, because we were being disenfranchised without being asked if we wanted to be disenfranchised,” Fesmire said, testifying about a special meeting held by Greensboro City Council that drew an overflow crowd.

The plan, which Wade pitched as improving political representation for African Americans, was widely discussed in the black community, including a monthly NAACP meeting and a community meeting hosted by the Pulpit Forum.

“I think the plan was overwhelmingly rejected by the black community,” the Rev. Johnson, one of the plaintiffs, testified. “People feel abused when something is done in their name and no one asks them for their input.”

One exception in the black community was Skip Alston, the former county commissioner and longtime NAACP leader. Alston, a black Democrat, and Wade, a white Republican, served together on the Guilford County Commission from 2000 to 2005.

Johnson and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who are also NAACP members, recounted a contentious meeting of the Greensboro NAACP executive committee in March 2015, in which Alston argued that the civil rights organization should support Wade’s bill. Johnson recalled that the executive committee initially split 9-9, but Alston announced that he had another member on the phone, and the tie was broken in favor of supporting the bill. Johnson characterized the maneuver as irregular, at best, testifying, “The NAACP executive committee does not take votes over the phone.”

The following day, Hightower testified, Wade publicly cited a letter stating that the NAACP supported her bill.

Beyond the questionable phone-in vote on the executive committee, Johnson testified that there were two additional problems with the letter publicizing the NAACP’s support.

“There is a policy that matters that have state implications have to go through the state [NAACP] apparatus,” Johnson said. “And then every decision of the executive committee is supposed to go before the full branch membership for ratification.”

Later, Johnson said, the Greensboro NAACP branch membership rejected the Wade plan by an “overwhelming majority.” Still later, a vote was taken at a community meeting hosted by the Pulpit Forum, and only one person voted in favor of the redistricting plan: Skip Alston.

Alston testified in a deposition that he was not involved in drawing the district map, but he said he discussed the matter with Wade after she filed her bill and likely told her he would be willing to act as a defendant when the law was later challenged in court. He also told lawyers representing the plaintiffs that he had expected either the Republican Party or the General Assembly to hire counsel. Earl Jones, one of the other defendant-intervenors, sent a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore asking him to intervene in the case. It remains unclear whether Moore ever responded.

The plaintiffs also entered deposed testimony from defendant-intervenor Sharon Kasica into the record. Kasica, a member of the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club, testified that she received a phone call from Wade encouraging her to run in the new District 7.

Sen. Gladys Robinson and Rep. Pricey Harrison, both Democrats from Greensboro, said they first learned about the redistricting plan when Wade filed it on Feb. 4, 2015. Robinson portrayed Wade as disinterested in Greensboro City Council’s legislative agenda when she became the chair of the county’s legislative delegation in 2014. Traditionally, Robinson said, the chair would call regular meetings when the General Assembly was in session so that the delegation could discuss the municipalities’ legislative needs and assign members to run bills for items they supported. When Wade finally convened a delegation meeting, Robinson testified that she did so at a time when the House members had to attend an appropriations meeting.

“Under Trudy Wade’s leadership, the requests of Greensboro City Council would never get entertained,” Robinson testified. “She would say, ‘I haven’t heard anything,’ even though we had their agenda. She was very active and aggressive toward getting more money for the furniture market; she was aggressive about responding to High Point’s needs.”

Under the redistricting plan eventually approved, four black Democrats on city council and two white Democrats would be forced to run against each other, while the board’s sole Republican, Councilman Tony Wilkins, would have no competition. Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who currently serves at large, would land in the new District 8.

“I said, ‘Oh wow, that was drawn for me,’” Abuzuaiter testified. “What was drawn was a highly conservative district. I’m a Democrat. My campaign manager and I looked at the precinct numbers, and we determined it would be very hard for me to win.”

Anthony Fairfax, an independent demographic and mapping consultant called as an expert witness by the plaintiffs, testified that the Wade plan creates four districts that provide Republicans with the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice and four districts that advantage Democrats. Voter registration in the city as of 2015 broke down as 55.7 percent Democrat, 22.8 percent Republican and 21.4 percent unaffiliated.

The plaintiffs are arguing that the Wade plan violates the “one person, one vote” requirement of the 14th Amendment by weighting the votes of Greensboro residents differently.

The plaintiffs presented evidence that the Wade plan placed more people in some districts and less in others, with deviations ranging 4.6 percent to -3.7, generally over-populating Democratic leaning districts while under-populating those that favor Republicans.

The plaintiffs also argue that District 2, as redrawn in the Wade plan, constitutes an illegal racial gerrymander in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The redrawn district absorbs the G24 precinct to pick up black voters while jettisoning the NMAD precinct where former Councilwoman Goldie Wells has testified that there is a new development that is majority white and higher income. Fairfax testified on Monday that the purpose of concentrating black voters in District 2 appears to be to “bleach” the adjacent District 8.

Judge Eagles recently invalidated one section of the law, which would have denied the citizens of Greensboro the right to call a referendum to change the city’s election system. The plaintiffs argue that because the law does not include a severability clause, the entire statute must be invalidated.

Allison Riggs, a lawyer for the individual plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs expect to make their closing argument early Tuesday afternoon. Judge Eagles has not indicated when she might rule on the case.