Redistricting as a high school clique psychodrama

by Jordan Green

For the third time this summer, the NC General Assembly redistricting committee held hearings at multiple sites across the state via satellite connection on Monday. GTCC’s Jamestown campus was one of the locations, and it drew attendance from Greensboro, High Point, Kernersville and Winston-Salem.

It was my second hearing, but I still had difficulty finding the place, a second-floor classroom in the library. There has been no signage at either of the two hearings I’ve attended. To get to the hearing room, one must walk through the library, up a flight of steps and down a long, narrow hall that makes a sharp left turn. My wife’s grandmother showed up about an hour into the hearing. Later, when I talked with her, she said that she had had an asthma attack while trying to find the library after my wife parked the car. A college employee had let her in through a service door and helped her find the elevator so she wouldn’t have to walk around to the front of the building. To my embarrassment, I realized I hadn’t even thought about whether the site was handicapped accessible. Afterwards, I went outside and looked for ramps from the parking lot to the library; if there were any, they weren’t apparent.

The site had a strange improvisational air. Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Mt. Airy, and Rep. John Faircloth, her fellow redistricting committee member from High Point, sat at a table facing the audience, while other legislators — Pricey Harrison, Maggie Jeffus and Earline Parmon — party officials, activists and reporters sat behind desks in rows. It reminded me of high school study hall. Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County moved restlessly in and out of the room.

Having covered redistricting exhaustively since April, I recognize that the subject is hopelessly confusing to anyone who is not a party functionary, lawmaker or campaign consultant. The General Assembly’s redistricting committee alone redraws the maps for three elective bodies: the NC Senate, the NC House and, not to be forgotten, the North Carolina delegation to the US Congress. Equally contentious, the Guilford County Commission is in the midst of redistricting, and to complicate matters, the NC General Assembly passed a law mandating that county commission restructure and reduce its number of seats. The school board is likewise redistricting. The Greensboro City Council has already completed its process. The county commission and school board in Forsyth County, along with the Winston-Salem City Council, will follow suit.

At this particular hearing, the cause of greatest heartache was what appears to be a concerted effort to target Democratic lawmakers from the Guilford delegation for removal. The proposed Senate plan draws Don Vaughan, a Democratic lawmaker from Greensboro, into a district with Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the Senate from Rockingham County. Vaughan is a popular politician in Greensboro and prolific fundraiser, but smart money says Berger would win that race. Meanwhile, the proposed House plan draws Jeffus and Harrison — both of whom are white, liberal Democrats from Greensboro — into the same district, forcing them into competition with each other. If that wasn’t enough, the plan also puts them in a majority minority district, drawn to allow black citizens the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice.

During a break in the hearing, Jeffus and Harrison were engaged in a furious huddle with Joan Bass, who has worked on Jeffus’ campaigns in the past. Yvonne Johnson, Greensboro’s first black mayor, lives in the proposed district. She has her sights set on the city council this year and may not be interested in running for NC House. Jeffus and Harrison might want to recruit her to speak out against the plan. The idea of two white politicians asking a black politician who would be a qualified candidate to help them save their seats is somewhat unseemly on its face, but maybe dividing the Democratic leadership by race is all part of the Republican plan.

There was a self-serving quality to all the statements made by party officials. After all, whether on the winning or losing side, their job is to protect their partisan interests. But Joann Schlaginhaufen, first vice chair for the Guilford Democrats, had a point.

“In seeking partisan advantage, the redistricting commission has split the city [of Greensboro] into three separate districts, so as to dilute and divide the community of interest,” she said. “As a resident of Greensboro, I don’t feel that I would have a representative under this new plan. One piece of our city would be represented by a senator from Rockingham…. Much of downtown by a senator from Pleasant Garden. And the rest by an unknown senator, most likely from eastern Guilford or from High Point. A plan that completely undercuts representation for the third largest city in the state is outrageous.”