Triangle's voice in U.S. House just doubled

New districts add confusion. Will they help with clout?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 8, 2012 

— When the new Congress convenes in January, the Triangle will double its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Because of redistricting, the area’s three-member delegation in the House will swell to six. Some districts span up to 150 miles and snake through the region in odd patterns. For many people, the person who represents them next year won’t be the one they’re accustomed to.

Durham County, for example, will now count four House members. A large part of the city of Durham, once Rep. David Price’s territory, now will be represented by Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield. Parts of Durham County also will be in the districts of Rep. George Holding, a Republican from Raleigh, and Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from Greensboro. And Price will still represent a slice of the southern end of the county.

The Triangle will be split among three Republicans and three Democrats. The others are Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, a Republican whose new district will include part of Wake County, including sections of Cary, and Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, a Democrat whose district stretches 150 miles from Southport to Clayton.

It’s an unusual number of districts for a metropolitan region of this size. Will it mean more clout?

It’s possible, especially for regional issues of concern to business, transportation authorities and research institutions. Typically, those types of local concerns don’t become partisan issues, said Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat.

“In some instances, it helps to have more members rather than fewer with a stake in what you’re working on,” he said. “But there clearly are also challenges with coordination and fragmentation.”

For businesses, universities and transportation officials, the new arrangement means they’ll deal with more congressional offices in Washington than in the past.

Kimrey Rhinehardt, vice president for federal relations with the University of North Carolina, said the impact won’t be fully known until the new session of Congress is in swing, committee assignments are made and votes are taken.

“During a campaign they don’t get down into the weeds of most issues,” she said. That means issues the universities care intensely about – such as funding from the National Institutes for Health or the charitable deduction on income tax – aren’t matters that some of these lawmakers have had reason to talk about.

“It’s certainly going to be different,” she said.

Price’s membership on the powerful Appropriations Committee is good for the Triangle universities, she said. And the UNC system works closely with Duke, because of overlapping interests. “With Butterfield representing Duke now, we see that as a positive thing because it means we have the ability to reach more members of the delegation with our issues.”

One county, four reps

Price, who was a political science and public policy professor at Duke University before he was first elected to Congress in 1986, said the downside of the new congressional districts is fragmentation.

“I don’t know any way you could construe splitting Durham into four districts to be a positive thing,” he said. He called the redistricting “the most extreme gerrymandering in our state’s history.”

State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican and the senior chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, disagreed. He said one of the goals of the plan was to give all the state’s metropolitan areas more representatives and more influence.

“I think it’s working out fine,” Lewis said. If there’s any confusion among people in the state, that’s up to the elected officials to sort out by making themselves better known, he said.

Because of population growth, North Carolina has more U.S. House seats – 13 – than it has had for most of its history. In 1970, for example, it had 11. The districts were drawn along county lines. All of Wake, Durham and Orange counties were represented by the same U.S. House member.

But over the years, state legislators started dividing counties and even precincts. Now more districts reach across large swaths of the state. That means a member of the House can represent the far reaches of rural Eastern North Carolina and parts of the urban Triangle.

In Durham, Milo Pyne of the Durham People’s Alliance, a political action committee, said residents were “more annoyed or dumbfounded than confused” by the new districts.

Ted Hicks, chairman of the Durham County Republican Party, said he heard of some confusion.

“Ultimately, there is some confusion anytime there is a change,” Hicks said. “People just have to get used to it.”

David Smith, chairman of the Friends of Durham political action group, said most people have trouble keeping up with such things.

“I doubt many people can tell you who their congressman is anyway,” Smith said.

An unusual grouping

Others in the Triangle who deal often with Congress say the new arrangement could have some benefits.

“Having a greater presence in Congress benefits the entire Triangle region,” said Bob Geolas, CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation. “It gives greater recognition to our global brand.”

The nation’s largest cities have six or more members of Congress, but it’s quite unusual to find that many in a region such as the Triangle with 2 million residents, said Thomas Eamon, an associate professor of political science at East Carolina University and the author of an upcoming book on North Carolina politics.

Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at N.C. State University, said having more people in the House for issues involving federal funding might be helpful. But he said it would take time for all six to learn about their new constituencies.

He said the new districts “don’t have any kind of regional identity. And so it may take them a while to really get a handle on it.”

Under the new plan, Wake County continues to have three representatives. They will be Ellmers, Price and Holding.

Coble, who has served in Congress for nearly 30 years, picked up parts of northern Durham and Orange counties. A staffer will visit the counties one day a week, but the location for part-time office space hasn’t been determined, said Ed McDonald, Coble’s chief of staff.

Ellmers, whose district stretches into Randolph County, said she plans to add a district office in Asheboro. She already had a piece of Wake County in her district.

“I’ve been proud to represent the Raleigh area during my first term in office and am looking forward to continuing this in the 113th Congress,” Ellmers said in a statement.

Butterfield gained about 60 percent of Durham County in his new district, which covers 149 miles from Elizabeth City to Durham. He plans to open an office there.

Durham faces urban issues of crime and sprawl, but it’s also a university town with high-tech business, Butterfield said. “So we’ve got to make sure we have the right policies that will enable these businesses to grow and to prosper and to hire people in the Triangle area.

“It’s making me work harder, for sure,” he said. But he said he knew the area well, having earned his undergraduate and law school degrees at North Carolina Central University.

Butterfield said it was impossible to say whether more House members would get more done for the region. He said Price “has a long-standing commitment to Durham County. I’m sure he’ll give it his all, and I’m going to do the same.”

Staff writer Jim Wise contributed to this report.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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