N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, is the legislature’s most powerful member, but he’s also a small-town lawyer with a folksy touch. On the wall of his modest law office in Eden, according to a 2014 News & Observer profile, there’s a sign that says his minimum consultation fee is $150. But last week on the Senate floor Berger gave North Carolina Democrats advice for free.
The legislature was back in Raleigh to approve new versions of 28 legislative districts that federal judges found to be illegal racial gerrymanders. The Senate leader used the occasion to give a speech about gerrymandering and Democrats.
Berger made two points. No. 1, the maps aren’t gerrymandered. It’s just impossible to draw balanced maps with a large majority of the state’s counties voting Republican.
“Democrats are only competing in 20 to 30 counties across the state,” he said. “That might be a viable strategy for squeaking out a win in the occasional statewide race, but you can’t build a legislative majority in a state with 100 counties when you only compete in a quarter of them.”
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No. 2, and this is the free advice part, if Democrats want to win back control of the General Assembly, they ought to get out of court and get back to their rural roots.
“It’s easy to understand why ‘gerrymandering’ has been the boogeyman since Democrats were swept out of power in 2010,” he said. “It’s easier to blame the maps, blame a process – blame anything, really – than it is to take responsibility for losing touch with the politics of voters in 75 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.”
In 2010, Republicans rode concern about high unemployment and hysteria about “Obamacare” to take control of the General Assembly. Then they used computer mapping technology to pull up the ladder behind them by engaging in extreme gerrymandering. Registered Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans in North Carolina, but Republicans control the state Senate 35-15 and the state House 74-46. Of the state’s 13 congressional districts, 10 are represented by Republicans.
But that’s not a result of gerrymandering, Berger said. “Do we really think all of these county shifts – these sea changes, in only a decade’s time – are a result of gerrymandering? Of course not. Gerrymandering didn’t do that. North Carolina Democrats did that,” he said.
Where, Berger wondered, are the North Carolina Democrats of old who were pro guns, pro-life and pro business?
“If you’re going to be competitive in legislative elections across the state, you’re going to have to bring back the North Carolina Democrat as a distinct political type, separate from the national Democrat,” he said.
In other words, Democrats could succeed if they became Republicans. Berger isn’t content to lock Democrats out. He wants to convert them.
Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, represents plaintiffs who successfully sued to have the original legislative district maps declared illegal. She said Berger’s dismissal of gerrymandering as a factor in elections is a familiar and flawed refrain.
“First of all,” she said. “We don’t vote by counties. We vote by districts where you have to achieve equal population.” She noted that 50 percent of North Carolina’s population lives in 13 urban counties, and those counties usually vote blue, not red.
But 50 percent of the General Assembly isn’t blue. That’s not because the Democrats are out of touch. It’s because they were out of power when the legislative district maps were drawn in 2011.
North Carolina is a moderate state on most issues, but legislative Republicans and former Gov. Pat McCrory were well to the right on issues such as House Bill 2, cuts in unemployment benefits and Medicaid expansion.
They’re also out of touch on redistricting reform. An August Public Policy Polling survey found that 56 percent of voters support nonpartisan redistricting in North Carolina. Only 14 percent oppose it.
Wayne Goodwin, the former state insurance commissioner, who now heads the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that Berger was an advocate of nonpartisan redistricting when he was in the minority. Now he’s gone silent on it.
Goodwin said he welcomes advice, even from the Senate Republican leader. But he also had some advice for him: If he really thinks the public overwhelmingly supports the Republican agenda, he shouldn’t fear holding elections based on maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission.
But on that issue, Berger isn’t taking what was once his own advice.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com