Testimony questions redrawn NC voting districts

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 4, 2013 

— Black politicians from across the state told a three-judge panel over and over on Tuesday that they had been doing “just fine” at the polls and they saw no need for congressional and legislative districts to be redrawn two years ago to concentrate black voters.

“We were doing fine; we didn’t need that,” said Goldie Wells, an African-American Greensboro resident who has served on the City Council there and participated in a number of political campaigns in one of the redrawn districts. “This caused a lot of confusion for people because people didn’t know where to vote.”

Wells was one in a series of witnesses called Tuesday to testify at a hearing on the voting district maps drawn in 2011 by the Republican-led General Assembly.

Democratic voters and civil rights and voting advocacy groups contend that dozens of districts across the state are gerrymandered to reduce the political influence of black voters and should be struck down.

State Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, former Sen. Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville and current House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham kicked off the hearing in the courtroom at Campbell University law school in downtown Raleigh.

The politicians testified that racially polarized voting doesn’t exist in their areas anymore, that the need for majority-black districts has diminished.

In their districts, they said, there is a history of black voters being able to elect their preferred candidates – no matter the race. There also is a history of white voters helping elect black candidates.

In a two-day trial that is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, the black lawmakers questioned the reshaping of districts where black candidates and black-supported candidates had historically fared well at the polls even though black voting-age populations were below 50 percent before 2011.

Districts in question

The judges wanted to focus on: Senate Districts 31 and 32 in Yadkin and Forsyth counties; House Districts 51 and 54 in Lee and Chatham counties; the 4th Congressional District in the eastern Piedmont; and 12th District stretching from Charlotte to Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups contend race was the predominant factor used to redraw the districts, ultimately reducing the larger political influence of black voters, who are more likely to support Democratic initiatives.

“The basis clearly was to pack all the African-American votes and people in the same district,” Blue testified.

Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters argued that mapmakers had evidence that racially polarized voting exists, and underscored his contentions with a study provided during the 2011 redistricting process.

Peters also asked the politicians upon cross-examination whether incumbency and successful fundraising efforts might have played more of a factor in the successes of the black candidates in districts with a minority of black voters.

U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who has been successful in one of those districts, was the key witness Tuesday afternoon and added his voice to the chorus of black politicians questioning the 2011 districts.

Watt said he met with Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who led the redistricting committee, in April 2011. The two talked about the need to redraw the congressional district that Watt had been successful in, but Watt said the plan adopted was not what the two had discussed.

Watt said Rucho told him at one meeting that he had been told by the Republican leadership that Watt’s district – U.S. District 12 – had to be redrawn to include more black voters.

“He was telling me that he was going to have to sell this to the African-American community,” Watt recalled Tuesday, and was asking for his help.

But Watt testified that he couldn’t do that because he didn’t think it was in the best interest of the African-American community. He was distressed later to hear that Rucho had told people that Watt had helped influence the shape of the redrawn district.

Watt said he considers Rucho a friend, but he felt he needed to let the public know the new district was not his idea.

“I don’t lie to people,” Watt said. “I don’t expect them to lie about me either.”

Rucho was at the hearing most of the day, but was not called to testify Tuesday.

Later Rucho differed greatly in describing the meeting with Watt. Rucho said he never talked to Watt about trying to sell a plan to the black community. “That would be foolish,” he said.

Rucho also said that no member of the Republican leadership had told him to draft the plan he presented. “I was the head of the committee,” he said. As to Watt questioning his veracity, Rucho said, the congressman should “be careful what he says under oath.” The 2011 maps helped Republicans add to their majorities in the state House and Senate in the 2012 elections. They also helped Republicans win nine of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats, compared with the six held before the redistricting.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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