Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Tom Hofeller still lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He has in recent years moved to Raleigh.
The legislature recently held a public hearing on a new redistricting plan it is developing, but it was hard to see it as anything more than a dog-and-pony show.
While the General Assembly will ultimately vote on the new court-ordered plan, the real work has actually been outsourced to the national Republican Party’s redistricting top gun – Tom Hofeller, the same person who designed the state’s heavily gerrymandered political maps in 2011.
Hofeller is by most accounts a nice guy – a 74-year-old grandfatherly-looking computer geek, who sings in the choir of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh, is a big reader, and is a self-described moderate Republican.
But the former Californian, who in recent years has moved from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to Raleigh, hardly seems steeped in Tar Heel political culture and history as he carves up legislative and congressional districts like a butcher in the Harris Teeter supermarket.
Redistricting is required by the Constitution after every 10-year census, so that everybody gets equal representation. It has always been political. Lines were drawn in the past in proverbial smoke-filled rooms to the advantage of the party in control.
But since the 1990s, legislative gerrymandering has entered a new phase, with back room pols being replaced by technocrats who know how to use sophisticated new software programs to slice and dice neighborhoods and precincts to achieve political outcomes.
Hofeller is the maestro of gerrymandering, having worked in states around the country. He not only knows how to shape districts for maximum political effect, but he understands the nuances of the law and what will likely withstand court challenges.
He also knows the pitfalls. He conducts all communications by telephone or in person, careful not to leave any email trail that could come back to haunt him in court, according to Robert Draper, who profiled Hofeller in The Atlantic magazine.
In North Carolina, the most startling example of his work was the redrawing of the congressional districts. After he drew new lines, North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation was transformed from a 7-6 Democratic majority to a 9-4 Republican majority in one election after the 2011 redistricting. (One election later it went to a 10-3 GOP majority, where it has stayed the rest of the decade.)
Two examples of the Hofeller magic will suffice.
He packed Democrats into several Democratic districts in order to make surrounding districts more Republican-leaning.
To push more Democrats into 4th District Democratic Rep. David Price’s district, centered in the Triangle, he connected it to Fayetteville’s African-American community. He connected it by a line that at one point, literally followed the Cape Fear River. Not only could Price not drive across the district that Hofeller drew for him, but he could not walk across it. But he could swim or canoe across it.
Another bit of Hofeller sleight of hand occurred in the mountains where the Republicans wanted to get rid of Democratic U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a former Redskins quarterback and a popular good ol’ boy. Hofeller moved Asheville – a hotbed of Democratic activism – out of the mountain district, and Shuler did not seek re-election. Asheville, although long regarded as the capital of Western North Carolina, is now represented by a Charlotte-area congressman.
Drawing such partisan lines has consequences. Replacing Shuler, a moderate Democrat who often worked with Republicans, was Republican Mark Meadows, a hard-line conservative who has been an obstructionist, making it difficult for the House Republican leadership to put together majorities.
During the last election, out of 170 state legislative districts, only 16 were competitive. (Competitive, in this case, means the winning margin was less than 10 points.) The Hofeller-designed legislative districts have given the GOP a veto-proof legislative majority that has resulted in one of the more dramatic rightward shifts in public policy of any state in the country.
But the Hofeller districts have come under legal scrutiny. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the congressional maps were unconstitutionally drawn, prompting a redrawing in 2016.
A panel of federal judges ruled last year that 28 of the state legislative districts were drawn illegally – a decision affirmed this spring by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Which is why Hofeller is back drawing new maps for the Republican legislature.