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Republican state redistricting plans play havoc with Guilford Democratic representatives

by Jordan Green

When Republicans draw maps Democrats experience dislocation. (photo by Jordan Green)

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat who has represented a central-western Greensboro district in the NC House since 2005, was unfurling maps for any sympathetic person she could find a the classroom at GTCC’s Jamestown campus last week that was one of seven remote sites across the state for hearings on proposed redistricting maps.

Under the proposed plan, Harrison would find herself “double bunking” — the term of art for when two incumbents are drawn into the same district and forced to compete against each other — with Rep. Maggie Jeffus in a new majority minority district. Both Harrison and Jeffus are white.

“To pull them into the same district automatically disqualifies one of them because only one can be reelected, but to make matters much worse, they have both been placed in double jeopardy by being put into a [Voting Rights Act] minority majority district, which either of them might easily lose if an African-American takes the opportunity to run for the district House seat,” said Anne Hummel, one of Jeffus’ constituents who votes at Page High School. “The way this map is drawn, Pricey Harrison would be placed in a district that has none of her former constituents at all except for a few people who live in her immediate neighborhood encompassing a few blocks. There is nothing more obviously high handed and mean-spirited that this kind of partisan gerrymandering to increase the advantage of Republicans in elections both here and across the state. This is power-play politics at its worst.”

Sen. Bob Rucho and Sen. David Lewis, the Republicans leading the NC General Assembly’s redistricting process said in a joint letter on June 17 that during previous hearings speakers “requested that current majority African-American districts be retained, where possible, and that additional majority black districts be created, where possible. The two lawmakers added that “increasing the number of majority African- American districts will ensure non-retrogressive legislative plans” and “expedite the pre=clearance of plans” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Guilford and some other North Carolina counties with a history of electoral discrimination remain under federal supervision and require approval from the US Department of Justice before new maps can be implemented.

In a prepared statement echoed by speakers at hearings across the state on June 23, NC NAACP legal redress chair Irving Joyner said, “We are very concerned that these proposed districts are being developed in a manner that have the intent, purpose and effect of segregating minority voters in non-cohesive and competing communities of interest. The plans indicate that there are attempts underway to illegally pack and stack minorities into a few ‘set-aside’ districts which will weaken the minority voice across the state.”

Outside the GTCC [classroom], Rep. Alma Adams, a black Democrat who has served in the House since the early 1990s, tendered a circumspect reaction. Like many Democrats and civil rights advocates reacting to the plans, Adams’ most emphatic objection was that the Republican leadership had only released maps of the so-called “voting rights” districts instead of all districts so that the plan could be understood in context.

“I think I need to see this whole thing before I can really respond appropriately and intelligently,” she said. “We can say, ‘Oh great, we’ve got three districts here,’ but it may not be ‘oh great.’” She noted ruefully that the proposed district that where she lives does not include NC A&T University and several precincts in northeast Greensboro that are an important part of her political base in her current district.

The proposed House District 63 contains a crescent enclosed by the Urban Loop around southeast Greensboro, travels up to East Market Street as it moves west, captures the lower tier of downtown, continues on through a couple chopped precincts covering the Sunset Hills neighborhood before arriving in the affluent neighborhoods of Starmount and Hamilton Forest.

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Proposed NC House map (courtesy image)

Harrison said she doesn’t see the need for dramatic change in district lines. Her current district is compact and urban, although it is about 4.5 percent below ideal population. District 60, a minority majority district that includes both High Point and Greensboro, has the lowest total population, while District 62, a Republican-leaning district in the northwest corner of the county, has the highest population. Harrison said she would favor a plan in which her district picked up a couple precincts from District 62 and shed a couple precincts to District 60. That would make her district more competitive, which she noted has been a stated goal of Republicans.

Guilford County Democrats have been reluctant to discuss the implications of changing the racial makeup of districts in which their party enjoys an advantage.

When Adams’ current district was drawn in 2003, it held a black voting age population majority. By picking up well-to-do, white neighborhoods along the Friendly Avenue corridor, the black voting age population in the new district drops to 49.8 percent. Asked whether the decrease jeopardizes a black candidate’s ability to win election, Adams responded, “I can’t comment on that. I don’t know. It’s hard to know that.”

Harrison downplayed the significance of being a white candidate in a district with a slight black majority.

“I feel like I have a pretty good connection with that community,” she said. “I’m less concerned about that than running against a veteran legislator who I respect and admire.”

The proposed House District 60 shares a clump of heavily black precincts in central High Point with its predecessor. To meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the district currently fuses a black area of central High Point with a black area of south Greensboro through a land bridge comprised of rural Guilford County. The proposed district sheds south Greensboro and instead follows Interstate 85 before traveling up through west Greensboro to Lindley Park. The map proposed by the Republican leadership reduces the black voting age population of the district from 50.1 percent to 49.7 percent. In contrast, an illustrative map released by the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice increases the district’s black voting age population to 52.9 percent.

Brandon, a black Democrat who is serving his first term, said he has no problem with the percentage of black voters being reduced in his district. He said that he is unhappy with the proposed district for a different reason: It increases the ratio of Greensboro precincts to High Point precincts and reduces the chances that voters in the state’s eighth largest city can elect one of their own.

“If you look at my vote totals last year, I won 90 percent of the white voters,” Brandon said. “I don’t have a problem with white voters. I do very well with them. I’ll represent whoever’s in my district: black, white, Democrat, Republican. I’m a more diverse thinker. For me, I like a diverse district.”

If history in neighboring Forsyth County is any indication, perhaps white voters will support black candidates in Guilford. Rep. Larry Womble, a black Democrat, represents a district with a black voting age population at about 50 percent when it was drawn in 2003. Earline Parmon, another black Democrat, represents a district whose black voting age population was a mere 42.9 percent when it was created.

Brandon, who is 35, said he favors moving away from the Voting Rights Act requirements to draw districts designed to ensure black candidates win elections. He said he knows that position sets him apart from an older generation of black politicians.

“I think Maggie and Pricey both represent Guilford County in a way that is exceptional,” he said. “I totally would not be surprised if some African-American candidate decided to run in the primary. And maybe these tossup districts will help us go to where I’m trying to be. It’s unfortunate for Maggie and Pricey to be stuck in a game of racial politics.”

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