HB2 and the sounds of gerrymandering

Senate leader Phil Berger didn’t respond to criticism of House Bill 2 until President Obama commented on it.
Senate leader Phil Berger didn’t respond to criticism of House Bill 2 until President Obama commented on it. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Even amid the bombast of this presidential primary season, House Bill 2 continues to push North Carolina into the spotlight.

We recently made the news in the United Kingdom because the British Foreign Office issued a warning to LGBTQ citizens about travel to North Carolina. President Barack Obama, in London, felt compelled to comment on the topic. Entertainers have canceled shows. Hundreds of companies have spoken out against it, with some notable ones halting investment or expansion in the state. The NCAA, the NBA and NASCAR have made their opposition clear. Some states have banned state-funded travel to North Carolina.

HB2 has become the latest attack ad by Ted Cruz, while Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, hardly a flaming liberal, raises questions about the threat that transgender people really pose. A recent court decision in Virginia means that billions of dollars of federal funding are at risk because of HB2.

I’d bet a fair amount that our elected representatives have been caught off guard by it all. That seemed true of Gov. Pat McCrory when a reporter challenged the governor’s assertion that the law overrode no local ordinances. McCrory has been trying to catch up ever since. He remains in a vocal war of words with all the “liberal PC elite” whom he says are unfairly slandering his state. He was on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where Chuck Todd suggested that his justifications for the bill were in fact a new rendition of the same arguments used to continue institutionalized racism in the South. McCrory’s executive order that rolled back some provisions by a fraction seemed only to fan the flames by signaling that his own support of the bill was wavering.

Of all the amazing aspects of this story, however, what is most striking is what’s not there. By most accounts, McCrory was not the driver of the bill. He likely preferred a very narrow bill to overturn the Charlotte ordinance as a strategy against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper. So where are those who really pushed the bill? Where has the GOP leadership been and why aren’t they on the front lines defending the bill? Where are the 11 Democrats who voted for it? Why aren’t they defending the good reputation of North Carolina?

The Associated Press recently went to great lengths to get comments from all lawmakers who voted for the bill, with miserably bad response rates. It took a comment from the president of the United States to get Senate leader Phil Berger to respond, an exception that proves the rule: The politicians who pushed hardest for this bill have said nothing in the face of staunch criticism. Why?

They don’t have to. About 90 percent of the legislators who voted for the bill either face no challengers in their elections this fall or won their last election by more than 10 percentage points. In North Carolina, both parties have embraced gerrymandering – the drawing of election districts for partisan advantage – to such a degree that most incumbents face no challenges. For many, refiling is effectively the same as being re-elected.

It’s hard to gerrymander the governor’s district, however. And so we see that the governor, who ultimately was probably the least gung ho about the bill, is the one out front taking the heat, while those who really pushed the issue hide behind him in their gerrymandered districts, redistricted into isolation.

Whatever your stance on HB2, we should be able to agree that the governor’s public defense of the law is a good thing. It’s a vital means of accountability in a democracy. What’s pathetic is that so few other elected officials are doing the same.

The curious case of HB2 illustrates how gerrymandering undermines the democratic process. Sherlock Holmes once warned his sidekick that he should worry less about the dogs that barked and more about the dogs that didn’t. The warning is appropriate in North Carolina politics. From the many court cases over our voting districts, we’re used to the serpentine look of gerrymandering. The controversy over HB2 teaches us the sound of gerrymandering: It’s the sound of silence.

Mark T. Nance is assistant professor of political science at N.C. State University and a board member of Common Cause North Carolina.