N.C. House maps could combine 2 Wilson districts

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Reps. Jean Farmer-Butterfield and Susan Martin could face off for a single N.C. House seat if new district maps follow a recently released framework.

The General Assembly's Redistricting Committee approved rules for redrawing state legislative districts last week.

Farmer-Butterfield, who is a member of the committee, said the criteria was voted on based on recommendations from committee leadership.

If a preliminary redrawing of legislative districts is approved, Wilson County could go from having two state representatives to one, which would mean Farmer-Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, could face Martin,  a Wilson Republican, in a race to determine who will represent the county.

"I think it's unfortunate that we may be facing each other," said Farmer-Butterfield. "She and I are friends and we work well together. I do plan to run and I haven't talked with her about it at all. If it's drawn that way and that becomes the real, final product, that's the way it will be."

Martin is not on the redistricting committee.

"I don't have the latest and greatest because I am not on the committee or involved with the redistricting," Martin said. "I will tell you that every election cycle, I pray about it and talk to my family about running again. Serving our community is an honor that I very much enjoy because of the people I represent, and this election will be no different. We will get new information and take it from there."

Martin said she had seen the initial maps.

"I would go through the same process of praying and talking to my family and looking at the new information to make a decision," Martin said.

Voting districts in North Carolina are being redrawn because the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that current district lines are unconstitutional. Justices agreed that Republicans used race as a predominant factor in drawing defining lines in 28 districts in 2011.

"The court decision was that you cannot intentionally gerrymander based on race in ways that isolate the black community and minimize their power by packing them and keeping them out of the surrounding districts where they may also be able to have an impact," said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash.

The court has given the state until Sept. 1 to submit redrawn district lines.

"Now the positive side of that is that now, with computer systems and the maps available today, you can draw maps on a computer within a matter of hours or days, unlike in the past when you had to do it the old way, so it should be something that can be done very quickly," Farmer-Butterfield said.

The committee on redistricting passed criteria including equal population, contiguity, compactness, voting precincts, municipal boundaries, incumbency protection, election data and no consideration of racial data.

Bryant, who chairs the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, said she is disturbed about the criteria in two respects.

"First of all, I am disturbed about the criterion of not considering race at all, because that was not the court decision," Bryant said. "Packing us with more citizens in a majority district than are needed for us to elect a candidate of our choice, which is what the Voting Rights Act requires, so by going to the other extreme, to not consider race, that means that they are not looking at how they might be even in these new maps hindering or hurting or unfairly burdening communities of color and they aren't even to look at if they are continuing to do racial gerrymandering, which, to me, is really not accomplishing the objective. I feel like that alone is a setup for us to continue to litigate these maps."

Bryant said the decision to protect incumbents "is a set up for them to have a justification to gerrymander around us or gerrymander in ways that would be potentially unfair to communities of color, so we will have to see how the combination of those two criteria, no consideration of race and protecting incumbents are used to justify squiggly and curly lines in those compact districts."

"The proof will be in what they finally do and what the adopted maps finally look like," Bryant said.

"When race is thrown out, our Constitution requires whole counties," said Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson. "I strongly believe in whole counties. I actually campaigned on that, keeping our counties whole.

The question obviously becomes, is there any community of interest along the counties?"

"The problem for Wilson, and woe to me, the districts as they are drawn, is absolutely perfect for me because my native home was Nash County and I'm a Wilson resident now," said Horner. "I've lived in southern Nash County all my life until I moved here. Most people in southern Nash County think Wilson is home as well. We get The Wilson Times. That's our paper of choice where I grew up. That being said, the group that we are being put in with, in that mathematical formula, is Edgecombe and Halifax. Wilson is again separated from Nash. My research has shown, and I would have to look at the maps, but I am just about positive that we have at least shared a senator with Nash County with the exception of 2002, that race, every year back to the '60s. There is quite a bit of precedent, but that doesn't matter. This is a mathematical formula right now and I haven't heard the Democrats or anybody challenge these groupings on either side. Everybody seems to be satisfied with that and the real redistricting battle is going to be inside those county groupings. That is going to be your redistricting battle, or I guess everybody calls it partisan politics because then you will be able to draw lines inside those particular counties."

Horner said he has talked with Bryant about the new districts being proposed.

"What that does is that basically puts Angela into Nash," said Horner. "Nash will be a whole county, just like Wilson will be for their Senate seat, but Nash is in a six-county grouping."

That grouping would include Johnston, Duplin, Sampson, Harnett and Lee and Nash counties, a cluster that would get three Senate seats.

"I think that criteria is fine, but I don't like these groupings," Horner said. "I think it doesn't make sense for Wilson. Wilson shares an airport with Nash, a reservoir with Nash and Johnston. What Wilson's got to do with Edgcombe and Halifax counties, I don't know."

Horner said if these maps hold, Bryant would be in a very difficult district for a Democrat to win. 

"Johnston is heavily Republican," Horner said. "And I'm certainly not going to be in a district I'd even run in with Halifax and Edgecombe. I'll say that up front. It's not a winnable district for a Republican. I mean, that district of Edgecombe, Halifax and Wilson, those three counties in the last election, they went for Hillary Clinton by 10 percent when you combine the votes in those counties and the state went 4-plus (percentage points) for Trump. That three-county grouping will probably be a 15-plus Democratic seat just by the nature of the voters there."

Farmer-Butterfield said it is important for constituents to visit www.ncleg.net and go to the redistricting page and express their views about what's going on, how they feel about redistricting and what they want their district to look like.

"They need to know that they can actually go to Raleigh. There is a room reserved in the legislative building for staff to help on a computer for people to redraw the lines the way they think the lines ought to be drawn," said Farmer-Butterfield. "I am not sure how many people are taking advantage of that. If they really want to, they can go in there and help draw the maps themselves, but they have to consider that when you draw a map where 28 House and Senate districts are involved in being redrawn, a lot more people are going to be affected by that, so what you do to those 20-some districts are also going to affect these other districts in the state. You can't help but do that when you redraw lines. I think the turnaround time is short on this and that is affecting how many people are really giving input."

"We will all have to wait until we see what the first proposal is before we really start getting concerned about what the changes will be," Bryant said."These seats, whether it be the House or the Senate, don't belong to Rick Horner, Angela Bryant, Susan Martin or Jean Farmer-Butterfield," said Horner. "They belong to the people, and we will just see how it shakes out and we'll all go from there and do the best we can."