Every ten years, a state legislative committee draws up new maps for Congressional districts, as well as for state senate and representative.
And every ten years, those who draw up the maps call them fair, while their political opponents cry gerrymandering. It seems to happen here more than anywhere. Many analysts and political watchers call North Carolina the most gerrymandered state in the country.
Last week, the latest Congressional map was released by Republican leadership in the state legislature.
Last night, people got their first chance to express their opinion on the map during public hearings at 9 sites across the state.
To the untrained eye, the map (pdf) looks like something a 2-year old might color if you gave her 13 different crayons – and told her not to worry about staying inside the lines. But to those who see these kinds of maps in states across the country, it’s a work of art.
Aaron Blake: "This is one of the most successful political gerrymanders that has occurred this year so far."
Aaron Blake covers politics for The Fix, the Washington Post’s politics website. He also calls the new map “ingenious“ because of the way Republicans created ten GOP districts - ones that went for John McCain in ’08 by at least 55 percent - and three democratic ones that went for Barack Obama by at least two-thirds.
Blake: "That is really what we look at when we look at a gerrymander. A whole bunch of districts that are marginally favoring one party and then the other districts completely and heavily favor the other party."
One of the “artists” of the map is Republican State Senator Bob Rucho. He’s not basking in the glow of his creation, but he is aggressively defending it against critics.
Sen. Bob Rucho:" There are folks that aren’t happy, they’d rather have gerrymandered democrat districts, and a lot of them are saying why should we change, we’re happy with that? And of course they were the elected officials."
Criticism is especially concentrated in Asheville. The proposed map moves much of the city from the 11th district to the 10th. That removes it from the rest of western North Carolina and aligns it with Gastonia, west of Charlotte. It also changes the 11th district of Democrat Heath Schuler into the most Republican in the state. And that has many in Asheville angry - people like Lael Gray.
Lael Gray: "It appears to me that you are so desperate to seize power you have now sacrificed all integrity, discarded any regard for common sense, and chosen to reveal your absolute contempt for the will of the people."
While most of the speakers at the public hearings have been critical, some have praised the current map. Rob Bryan of Mecklenburg County calls the new districts “competitive.”
Rob Bryan: "Many of us in this state have long been frustrated that in many congressional races, once the primary was over – if there even was one – the election was settled. This map creates more competition and every vote counts more than it has in the past."
Bryan is hardly a casual observer – he’s the past chair of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party. On the other side of the aisle, praise is hard to find. Congressman Brad Miller loses democratic strongholds in Guilford and Wake Counties, drastically changing his traditional base.
Rep. "Brad Miller: Probably fewer than 30 percent of the people who live in the district that we call the 13th lived in the district that I’ve represented for the last decade, so it’s a very different district."
DeWitt:" The way this map has come out, has it changed your ideas about running, not running. Are you still planning to run next year?"
Miller:"I’ve looked at the map. I can tell that they would prefer that I not be in Congress. I knew that already. And I’m going to see what the maps, what the districts really end up being."
In a twist as circuitous as one of the gerrymandered districts itself, it turns out that Miller just happens to be one of the architects of the last map, in 2001, when he was chair of the legislative redistricting committee – the job now held by Rucho. He was criticized then by Republicans for not just gerrymandering, but also creating a new district and then running for the seat himself.
Ten years later, Rucho says this map is not about political payback.
Rucho: "Absolutely not. That’s got nothing to do with whether he drew a district or not. That’s what he has to be comfortable with, not us."
The map will very likely be passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature. Governor Bev Perdue is prohibited by law from vetoing it.
24 of the last 30 redistricting maps in North Carolina have been challenged in court. Any doubt that this one will be number 25 was answered when NAACP president William Barber addressed the hearing last night.
Rev. William Barber: "It is a shameful, wrong, regressive act. It is a perversion of the voting rights act of 1965. And we will meet you in court."