“Those tea party guys really came through for us.”
That comment, uttered in passing by an Asheville Democrat, was the last thing I heard before walking out the door of the Legislative Building on the night the session ended.
Adjournment of the 2016 legislative came abruptly after a combination of Democrats and some of the more conservative members of the state House managed to convince enough their colleagues to vote down a bill that was key to the end-of-session deal between House and Senate leaders.
The defeat of the bill, which mandated new district elections for Asheville city council, blew up the deal and the legislature blew town, leaving hundreds of pages of various legislative compromises undone.
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The key selling point for the opponents of the bill was fairness. It had been pushed through by a powerful state senator in his last term. Along the way, he’d bent if not outright snapped a procedural rule or two. The new lines, the detailed block-by-block districting of the city, were drawn in secret in Raleigh not Asheville.
Despite that, nobody expected the bill to do down.
You could feel the opposition slowly build in the House as arguments for fairness, giving people in the city a referendum and the need for independent redistricting hit home. It was also evident that many in the House, perhaps all 120, were fed up with the heavy-handed ways of the other chamber.
Still, House leaders pushed for the bill and several senators showed up to work over a few reps.
When the final vote came, there were audible gasps on the House floor. Outside, staffers and lobbyists let loose a collective cry of surprise that sounded like one big “whoa.”
It’s hard to know whether what happened on the House floor that night was a spark of democracy, a portend of future splits or simply a parting gift to a departing senator.
Most likely, it is all those things and, more importantly, it is a reminder that in many areas the legislature and the cities and towns it represents are dangerous out of synch.
How we got there is mainly a gerrymandering story. The lines drawn in 2011 packed Democratic voters in urban areas and divided them up elsewhere, diluting the clout of cities and guaranteeing few of their legislators would hold leadership roles.
But the story of what’s wrong is not just about cleverly drawn and possibly unconstitutional districts. It’s also about power.
There was no mandate for legislators to take the fight the state’s municipalities, but they sure did. A full list of the dialing back of local authority over environmental and worker protections, elections, education and human rights would take up the rest of this column. Cities have also seen attempts to strip their authority over airports, water systems and other infrastructure.
As we saw with HB2, the strong arm tactics have also been used to enforce a conservative social agenda. One of the bills left undone this session would have punished local governments that choose to keep local law enforcement from becoming the tool of a failed federal immigration system. The bill included a provision for anonymous tips that would trigger a state attorney general investigation of local governments suspected of not enforcing immigration laws. Penalties included steep cuts in economic develop and school construction aid.
Had they passed, both the immigration bill and the Asheville redistricting bill would have headed straight to court. It’s the standard route for much of the overreach of this era and it’s costing both the state and local governments a fortune to litigate.
How this changes is unclear. The election might move the needle some and it probably will, but don’t expect the battle against cities to end until we fix the fundamental flaws that isolates far too many incumbents from the will of the voters.
In a state where power skews heavily toward the legislative branch, the current system of drawing districts is a recipe for demagoguery if not disaster.
We can can ill afford the time, cost and opportunities lost in ongoing battles with our own.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org