North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting
You could forgive Mel Watt, the former U.S. congressman and Charlotte Democrat, if he had an “I told you so” this week for former state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican.
Watt’s account in court of a conversation between the men about North Carolina Republicans’ 2011 redistricting plan was recounted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling released Monday.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote for the 5-3 majority in affirming that North Carolina lawmakers relied too heavily on race when drawing new congressional boundaries after the 2010 Census, included the exchange in a footnote while writing about the 12th District, which has been described as the “most gerrymandered district in America.”
The 12th District, from 2011 to 2016, was 120 miles long but just 20 miles wide at its widest part. The district included large portions of Charlotte and Greensboro connected by a thin strip that followed Interstate 85.
Kagan noted that the 12th district, the most litigated in the country during the 1990s, was “making its fifth(!) appearance before this court.”
Watt, a lawyer who heads up the federal Housing Finance Agency, represented the 12th District from 1993 to 2013.
“Perhaps the most dramatic testimony in the trial came when Congressman Mel Watt (who had represented District 12 for some 20 years) recounted a conversation he had with Rucho in 2011 about the district’s future make-up,” Kagan wrote in the ruling.
“According to Watt, Rucho said that ‘his leadership had told him that he had to ramp the minority percentage in [District 12] up to over 50 percent to comply with the Voting Rights Law.’ And further, that it would then be Rucho’s ‘job to go and convince the African-American community’ that such a racial target ‘made sense’ under the Act.”
“Watt recalled that he laughed in response because the VRA required no such target,” Kagan continued. “And he told Rucho that ‘the African-American community will laugh at you’ too.”
Watt, according to the trial testimony, explained to Rucho that before the 2011 redistricting he was getting 65 percent of the vote in a district in which 40 percent of the residents of voting age were black. Watt said he told Rucho that if the Republicans ramped up that number to higher than 50 percent, he would “probably get 80 percent of the vote, and that’s not what the Voting Rights Act was designed to do.”
The country’s highest court agreed with Watt – concluding that the 12th District was an illegal racial gerrymander.