Under the Dome

Republican NC Senate leader has some advice for Democrats who oppose redistricting maps

North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger during an interview in his Raleigh office on May 23, 2017.
North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger during an interview in his Raleigh office on May 23, 2017. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina Democrats got political advice from an unlikely source Monday evening – Republican Sen. Phil Berger, the leader of the state Senate.

Berger said Democrats should be more concerned with geography than with gerrymandering.

In a rare move, Berger left the dais where he presides and handed his gavel to a colleague so he could take the floor of the Senate during a debate over proposed new districts to elect senators.

Berger then launched into a lengthy speech, rife with statistics and jabs at the Democrats who had previously spent the evening criticizing the new district maps that Berger and his fellow Republicans drew and will likely soon vote to pass.

One of those critics was Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat.

“People want competitive races,” McKissick said. “... We can do better than this. We can make choices that people will embrace. We can come up with a way of working on both sides of the aisle so voters can make a choice.”

According to a News & Observer analysis, just 10 of the 50 new Senate districts and 19 of the 120 new House districts would have been competitive in the 2016 elections. And if the maps pass, it’s also likely that Republicans will retain their supermajorities in both chambers – which they need to override vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has already vetoed 11 bills this year.

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Berger dismissed the complaints from his colleagues on the left, saying they should focus on their party platform instead of the partisan tilt of legislative districts.

“If you’re going to be competitive across the state, you’re going to have to bring back the traditional North Carolina Democrat,” Berger said.

He defined that politician as someone who is pro-education, pro-business and pro-gun.

Berger said one example of North Carolina Democrats becoming too liberal for many people in the state was that in 2010, many of them sought endorsements from then-President Barack Obama. He didn’t mention that Obama had won North Carolina in 2008, although he did mention the 2010 election that swept Democrats out of office here and in other states after a campaign marked by the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement.

Berger noted that Cooper won in just 28 counties, far fewer than past Democratic governors like Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue who won in a majority of North Carolina’s 100 counties. That recent consolidation has coincided with a population boom in the state’s urban areas – most of which Cooper won – and a population loss in rural areas.

Berger told his Democratic opponents that while their apparent focus on growing urban areas “might” be a good strategy for statewide races, it’s hurting them in the legislature – where mapmakers recently have tried to avoid splitting counties into multiple districts.

“Democrats are only winning in 20 to 30 counties in North Carolina,” he said.

Democrats, however, weren’t convinced. The maintained that these new maps will be unfairly lopsided to favor Republicans. For example, even though Cooper won the governor’s race last year, he would have won in just 18 of the 50 proposed new Senate districts, and just 47 of the 120 new House districts.

Berger said he doesn’t think the new maps engage in partisan gerrymandering – even though Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who leads the House’s redistricting committee, said earlier this month that drawing the maps would be “an inherently political thing.”

On Monday, two Democratic senators – Ben Clark of Raeford and Gladys Robinson of Greensboro – suggested a few tweaks to the maps. They said the changes would create a handful of more competitive districts, replacing ones that will likely have pre-determined winners.

“The intent is simply to give voters the opportunity to vote,” Robinson said.

However, Republicans shot down both proposals.

Lawmakers are redrawing maps because federal courts ruled the 2011 House and Senate maps contain 28 districts that are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

McKissick noted that the debate was happening on the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He said it was a reminder of how far race relations still have to go.

McKissick was especially critical of the fact that after the districts were ruled to be racially discriminatory, the GOP-led General Assembly approved rules for the new maps that forbade mapmakers from considering racial statistics at all.

“The only way to go back and correct that wrong, and that deficiency, was to consider race,” he said.

“The courts expect us to act responsibly,” McKissick added. “I’m afraid we’ve neglected that responsibility.”

Berger, however, bristled at the suggestion. Although race was not allowed to be a factor in drawing the maps, he came armed with detailed racial statistics regarding the specific districts in question, which he rattled off during his speech.

“This map is not a racial gerrymander and fully complies with the court order,” he said.

The final decision on that will be up to the courts. The challengers whose lawsuit led to the current lines being thrown out have already alleged that the new lines aren’t an adequate solution, and said they expect the judges to not accept the GOP-drawn maps and instead draw new lines themselves.

“We believe the court will have to draw a plan itself that fully remedies the violations, as it will not be able to approve these districts as an appropriate remedy,” the plaintiffs wrote in a letter to the General Assembly.

The Senate went on Monday night to approve its map, which also won approval Tuesday in a House committee. The House has approved the map for election of House members, which was approved Tuesday in a Senate committee. The court-imposed deadline to approve the maps and present them to judges is Friday.