Politics & Government

Return of the 'mutant crab': This Raleigh 5K takes runners along a gerrymandered path

NC House District 34 as it looked from the 2012 elections until 2017.
NC House District 34 as it looked from the 2012 elections until 2017. NC General Assembly

North Carolina’s capital city is at least 130 miles from the Atlantic Ocean’s sandy shores, but for much of the past decade a large mutant crab lurked in Raleigh.

That’s what Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat in the state House of Representatives, calls the election district he ran in until last year.

On Saturday, as part of an event to highlight what gerrymandering looks like in one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, runners, joggers and walkers will line up at Trophy Brewing at 10 a.m. for a 5K course that follows the path of what was House District 34 from the 2012 elections until last year.

A map of the route that participants will run and walk on Saturday, May 12, 2018. Courtesy of Common Cause NC

For much of the past decade, North Carolina’s election districts have been the focus of numerous lawsuits.

After new-to-power Republicans tweaked North Carolina’s election district maps in 2011, their map drawing was challenged and struck down in the courts for including unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Last year, after a court ordered lawmakers to draw new state House and Senate districts to correct the racial gerrymanders, House District 34 got a new look.

“The mutant crab has gone away and been replaced by an avocado,” Martin said.

But the image of the crab, with its claws reaching around the North Hills neighborhood and its head picking up a block of households including Martin’s, illustrates the contortions of gerrymandering and the point that Common Cause, the sponsor of the 5K, wants to make.

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Bob Phillips is executive director of Common Cause NC, an organization that has advocated for years to take the politics out of the redistricting processes that take place every decade after the census.

The idea is to tweak election districts to reflect shifts in population, but Republicans and Democrats have used the opportunities to draw maps to gain partisan advantages.

Mapmaking technologies make it possible now to draw lines that pick up or exclude households.

Lawsuits from Wisconsin, Maryland and North Carolina have stacked up at the U.S. Supreme Court challenging just how far lawmakers across the country can go to draw lines so they’re choosing their voters instead of putting the power with voters to choose who represents them.

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“This is meant to be a fun way to show what gerrymandering looks like,” Phillips said.

Common Cause will have maps and banners along the route and at Trophy Brewing to explain gerrymandering. Participants also can stop in front of the Legislative Building for photos, Phillips said.

When North Carolina Republicans adopted the district that Martin calls the mutant crab, he was bunked in the same district as Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state House member who would later make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016 against Republican Richard Burr.

Ross and Martin had been in different districts before then. Martin, who won his first election to the House in 2004, chose not to run against Ross in 2012.

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The downtown Raleigh portion of NC House District 34 as it looked from the 2012 elections until 2017. NC General Assembly

But in 2013, Ross resigned from the legislature to take a job with Triangle Transit, and with her endorsement, local Democrats selected Martin to take her place for the remainder of the term.

Ross said this week that she won’t be able to join the runners and walkers following a course she knows well from campaigning.

Her family will be celebrating her father’s 80th birthday.

Martin plans to participate.

“I’ll be jogging,” he said.

The 5K course begins at 10 a.m. at Trophy Brewing, 827 W. Morgan St. The course creators did not give kids an Etch A Sketch to create their map, but participants might get that feeling as they zig and zag through the streets of Raleigh back to Trophy for beer and medals.

“We have this saying in the military,” said Martin, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and an Afghanistan veteran, “you have to know the ground truth. You can have all these maps, but to get the real sense, ‘you really have to know the ground truth.’”

That’s what 5Ks, such as the one Common Cause organized for this weekend, and a similar kind of race sponsored last year in Asheville by The League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, are designed to do.

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Phillips said the money collected for entry fees will be used by Common Cause to help slay mutant crabs and gerrymanders designed to take voters out of the election process.

"It will go towards education efforts and lawsuits," Phillips said.

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End Gerrymandering 5K run/walk

When: Saturday, May 12. Check-in starts at 9 a.m. The run/walk begins at 10 a.m.

Where: Starting and ending lines are at Trophy Brewing, 827 W. Morgan Street, Raleigh.

Registration: Participants may register atCommonCauseNC.org/run. Fee is $30 before May 12, and $35 on race day. Includes a medal and a post-race beer.