Patrick Gannon is a columnist for the Capitol Press Association.

Patrick Gannon is a columnist for the Capitol Press Association.

Patrick Gannon: A bid to step out of the dark corner of democracy

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The big debate over redistricting brings to mind another controversy that raged in the capital city not long after Republicans took control of the N.C. House and N.C. Senate after the 2010 elections.

It was a much different, more personal topic – compensation for victims of North Carolina’s former eugenics program, which sterilized people deemed unfit by state officials to bear or raise children.

But the political dynamics were similar then and now, amid a renewed effort to change the way election districts are drawn.

Back then, Democrats, including some veteran legislators, pushed Republicans relentlessly to approve cash payments to victims as a way to show the state’s remorse for what was obviously a horrible era of N.C. history during the last century.

But Republicans questioned why Democrats – who had held power in Raleigh for generations, including through the eugenics period – did not compensate victims when they controlled the state budget.

It was a perfectly good question, and one that made the Democrats advocating for the payments seem a bit hypocritical. They had the power but never did it, so why should they expect Republicans to immediately give in? To their credit, the Republican-led General Assembly ultimately approved payments, many of which have been made to victims.

That brings us to the debate over whether the state should create a nonpartisan commission to draw districts for Congress and state House and Senate. Currently, the maps are drawn after each U.S. Census by the political party in power in Raleigh.

The problems with partisan redistricting screamed loudly last week as the legislature considered new congressional maps to replace the ones approved in 2011. A federal court ruled that two of the state’s 13 congressional districts, which were in place for the 2012 and 2014 elections, are racial gerrymanders and demanded new maps.

Republican leaders readily admitted during committee meetings that the new districts were drawn to try to ensure Republicans would retain 10 of 13 congressional districts after this year’s elections. That is how many they have now.

“I acknowledge freely that this will be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law,” said N.C. Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican who leads the House’s redistricting efforts.

It was an open admission that the General Assembly picks its voters, rather than voters picking their representatives in government.

Political gerrymandering occurs today, as Lewis acknowledged, and it also was a regular practice when Democrats were in power.

Just like with the eugenics issue, Democrats are pushing Republicans to make a change to a nonpartisan redistricting process that they could have made, but did not, when they were in control. Republican leaders so far are not answering those calls, claiming, among other things, that a fully nonpartisan redistricting process is not possible. Everyone has opinions.

“It’s amazing to hear Democrats talk about political gerrymandering. ...Your predecessors wrote the book on it,” N.C. Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, told senators during floor debate. “It’s called if you win, you draw the maps, and I don’t believe that’s ever going to change.”

N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat fighting for a nonpartisan redistricting process, said on the Senate floor that no one can “honestly defend drawing maps for the express purpose of favoring one political party.” He listed a number of states that have created independent commissions for map drawing.

Jackson challenged Republicans to “leave a legacy of simple fairness and common decency that will outlast all of us.”

“If you bring an end to partisan redistricting, it will be an act of political courage unlike any that this state has seen in a long time,” he said.

Jackson told fellow senators that he would work with any legislator to “step out of this dark corner of our democracy.”

As Republicans did with eugenics.