As legislative leaders rejected Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for a special session on redistricting last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown held up a map of the Senate district Cooper represented in the 1990s.
The map showed Nash County — Cooper’s home — with a jagged swath extending north into Halifax County and a C-shaped territory through Wilson and Edgecombe counties.
“I don’t think anybody could draw a map quite like this one,” said Brown, a Jacksonville Republican. “This one is about as bad as it gets, and this happens to be our governor’s map in 1990 that he drew.”
Brown was among several Republican legislators who criticized the governor’s record on redistricting after Cooper said the GOP had “rigged the system and it’s just wrong.” Cooper made that comment while calling for a special session to “create districts that are fair for North Carolina voters.”
Republicans have been quick to point out that Democrats typically drew maps to favor their party when they controlled the legislature in past decades. Sen. Andrew Brock, a Mocksville Republican, joked that the ’90s Cooper Senate district was “abstract art” that should replace the paintings on the walls of the Senate chamber.
Brown added that the Republicans’ maps “are a whole lot cleaner than any of these maps will ever be.”
So what was Cooper’s role in redistricting during his time in the legislature?
The maps Brown showed off were approved by the legislature along party lines in January 1992. At the time, Cooper was still in his first year in the Senate, having moved over from the House when the senator in his Nash County district died in office.
Cooper did not lead the Senate Redistricting Committee that year. Those 1992 legislative maps replaced a plan that was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said the initial maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting strength of minorities. The agency also said the maps “deferred to the interests of incumbents.”
Democrats admitted that the 1992 plan they created to address the concerns wasn’t ideal.
“It is an ugly plan,” said then-House Speaker Dan Blue, who’s now the Senate Minority Leader. “I will not stand here and tell you these are the most symmetrical, prettiest districts I’ve ever seen. There are some funny-looking districts.”
Republicans blasted the plan at the time for their unusual shapes that divided counties. One GOP senator said the maps would be “severely injuring the whole concept of representative government as we have known it.”
The 1992 legislative maps remained in use until the normal redistricting cycle in 2001. But the congressional districts enacted in the early ’90s faced legal challenges — and put Cooper in a leading role when they had to be redrawn under a court order in 1997.
Cooper chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee and was in charge of drawing the new maps. Cooper oversaw a plan that tweaked the majority African-American 12th District to address the U.S. Supreme Court’s concern that race had been too strong a factor in drawing the 12th.
Cooper said the map would have more compact districts with fewer odd shapes, while keeping the partisan split of six Republicans and six Democrats.
“I believe all 12 incumbents could have an excellent chance of winning, " he said at the time, according to a News & Observer article.
Opponents, however, said the new map still didn’t resolve the racial gerrymandering issue, and another federal court sided with them the following year — prompting another map to be used in the 1998 election. But the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the 1997 plan overseen by Cooper, and that map was used in the 2000 election.
A spokesman for Cooper criticized Republican senators’ use of 1990s redistricting plans in rebuffing the governor’s special session call.
“Republican legislators are pulling out every argument they can think of to defend the indefensible and to delay the inevitable,” spokesman Ford Porter said in an email. “The U.S. Supreme Court was unanimous, clear and strong that their districts are unconstitutional. People deserve fair elections that are not rigged and the legislature needs to draw new maps now.”
Redrawn district maps
North Carolina legislators have been down this road before — often. Here’s when previous maps had to be redrawn under orders from courts or the federal government:
1997: Congressional districts had to be redrawn after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislature relied too heavily on race in drawing the majority-black 12th District.
1998: The 1997 Congressional district map was thrown out before it could be used when another federal court ruled the new design of the 12th District still relied too heavily on race. Primaries were delayed until September that year, but the 1998 plan didn’t last long — the U.S. Supreme Court’s action reinstated the 1997 maps for the 2000 election.
2001: A state Superior Court rejected legislative district maps for splitting too many counties, forcing legislators to try again in 2002. The second plan was also rejected in court, and an interim map drawn by a Superior Court judge was used for the 2002 elections.
2003: A third plan enacted in 2003 was later struck down but was used in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The legislature then made some minor tweaks to districts for the 2010 election to comply with court rulings.
2016: A federal court struck down the congressional district map enacted in 2011 as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and ordered a delayed primary under new maps.
2017: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that struck down legislative districts drawn in 2011 as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The time line for new elections is unclear.