After a heated debate that featured accusations of deception and Senate coercion, the N.C. House rapidly changed course Thursday on legislation that would change how the Greensboro City Council is elected.
The bill – now a law after the Senate also voted Thursday – marks the second time this year that the legislature has reshaped local elections. An April vote redrew the Wake County Board of Commissioners district boundaries in a change likely to favor Republicans.
That bill passed quickly along party lines, but the Greensboro council redistricting prompted a bitter split among GOP legislators. And it drew comments from legislators who represent other areas, including criticism that the change will diminish the impact of black Greensboro residents.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Cumberland County Democrat, said he usually doesn’t speak on local bills, but that HB 263 is “way beyond a local issue.”
Shortly after 11 a.m., the House voted down the bill 53-50. Republican leaders called for a break to hold a closed-door caucus meeting and moved to vote again when they returned 45 minutes later.
Several GOP legislators changed their vote, leading to bill’s approval 57-46. Rep. Charles Jeter, a Mecklenburg County Republican, made the motion to reconsider the bill after he’d voted against it an hour earlier.
A few minutes later, the Senate voted 33-16 to pass the changes into law.
The Greensboro bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Trudy Wade, surfaced this session around the same time as Senate legislation to change voting for Wake County commissioners. Both bills drew criticism that the changes were a power grab designed to elect more Republicans; supporters countered that the new districts would better represent residents.
The Wake bill had support from the county’s House and Senate Republicans and passed in early April. But the Greensboro bill garnered opposition from two House members representing Guilford County – Reps. John Blust and Jon Hardister – and had stalled after clearing the Senate. Wade then inserted the election provisions into another House bill involving local elections in Trinity, a small town in Randolph County.
The House voted down the revised bill Monday night 73-35, sending the legislation to a conference committee of House and Senate legislators. The committee tweaked the redistricting plan to give Greensboro eight council members instead of seven.
Blust said Thursday that he still wouldn’t support the bill unless the changes went before Greensboro voters in a referendum. “I staked myself out pretty clearly,” he said. “I would support it only if it was a vote.”
Blust said he recognized some House Republicans would support the changes to avoid retaliation from the Senate, where many of them hope to get their bills passed this session. He alluded to arm-twisting from Senate Republicans on the issue.
“The Senate was so adamant about this, and everyone has business before the Senate that you care about and are working on hard,” Blust said. “Most of you do not represent Greensboro, and I bet 95 percent do not care about this issue. It’s been monumentally difficult from that standpoint.”
Blust served on the conference committee, and Rep. Pat Hurley – sponsor of the original House bill – said Blust had supported the new version in the closed-door meeting this week.
Blust responded that Hurley and others had promised several changes that didn’t appear in the final conference report. “I want to see the final product first, and I want time to think about things,” he said. “I did not say I support this.”
Glazier noted that there has been no public notice, hearing or referendum in Greensboro. He questioned whether the changes would violate voting rights or even be constitutional. “This may be the most unusual and lack of transparent process that this body has ever done,” the Fayetteville Democrat said.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said the new districts pack African-Americans into two districts to minimize their overall impact in the remaining districts. The current Greensboro council has four members who are black.
Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said that change disenfranchises African-Americans. “You are packing African-Americans, who have always been segregated, back into segregation. It’s resegregation,” she said.
After the bill was initially voted down, opponents in the gallery burst into applause. House Speaker Tim Moore quickly gaveled them down. “That will not be tolerated,” he said.
Who changed their votes?
Plenty of legislators switched positions on a Greensboro redistricting plan within a single hour.
House Republicans who opposed the bill, then supported it: Reps. Jay Adams of Hickory, Hugh Blackwell of Burke County, John Bradford of Mecklenburg County, John Fraley of Iredell County, Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg County, Larry Pittman of Concord, Jason Saine of Lincolnton and Michael Speciale of New Bern
House Republicans who supported the bill, then opposed it: Reps. Jon Hardister of Greensboro and Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem
House Republican who supported the bill, then didn’t vote in the second round: Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy