By Scott Jenkins
SALISBURY — Rowan County would lose a longtime representative and gain two new ones in the proposed Congressional redistricting plan released Friday by Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly.
While a state senator who represents Rowan in Raleigh says the new map is driven purely by population figures, political observers say it strengthens current Republican lawmakers and weakens several Democrats, including one whose newly drawn district would include part of Rowan.
Under the proposal, U.S. Rep. Howard Coble’s 6th District would recede from Rowan, while fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx would see her 5th District stretched to include northwestern Rowan.
The new plan would also put most of southern and eastern Rowan in the 8th Congressional District now represented by U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, a Democrat. U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s 12th District would still extend through Rowan, but would lose ground in the eastern part of the county and cut a narrower swath through the center.
The 12th District would continue to snake from Charlotte north along Interstate 85 to Greensboro and take in portions of Winston-Salem. The district’s black voting-age population would increase from the current 44 percent to just over 50 percent.
Jay Parmley, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the districts represented by the state’s two black representatives — Watt is one — were packed to benefit Republicans in adjoining districts.
“I would call it Republican greed,” he said.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, and state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, chairmen of the Legislature’s redistricting committees, said in a statement the plan “fully complies with applicable federal and state law.”
“While we have not been ignorant of the partisan impacts of the districts we have created, we have focused on ensuring that the districts will be more competitive than the districts created by the 2001 Legislature,” the joint statement said.
New U.S. House districts are drawn every 10 years based on census figures and under federal law each district must have essentially the same number of people living in them. But the districts are drawn by the party in charge of the state legislature, and for the first time in more than a century in North Carolina, that’s the Republican Party.
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, who represents Rowan and Davie counties and is vice chairman of the redistricting committee, contended Friday that partisan politics had nothing to do with how the proposed new lines were drawn.
“The thing about it is, we have to go by the guidelines we have out there,” Brock said. “… We’re not drawing districts for people.”
Brock said the districts abide by the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities from discrimination, and take into account that urban areas such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro have grown in population more than other places in North Carolina over the past decade. That population growth meant districts with urban areas got geographically smaller while more rural districts grew.
The districts are also drawn to keep intact “communities of interest,” or places where the people in them, and their representatives, have similar backgrounds and values, Brock said. Foxx’s familiarity with farmers, he said, makes her a good fit for western Rowan.
“For Virginia Foxx to be a possible representative for western Rowan, the bottom line is you cannot ask for a more agriculture-friendly representative to Congress,” he said. “I think that’s something good for Rowan County.”
Dr. Michael Bitzer, associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said it might not be so simple.
“Now that the county is basically split between three different representatives, people are going to wonder, ‘Who am I voting for?’ to begin with, and it’s going to take some real education,” he said. “And what’s also going to be difficult is for someone like Virginia Foxx, who has a pretty solid base in the mountains, she’s got to come down and learn about the district that she’s got now, these new voters. They may have heard of her, but they don’t know her.”
He also said potentially losing Coble, who has represented Rowan for decades, would be significant.
“That’s big right there, to lose someone like Howard Coble who, while he’s in the majority, he has what’s more important, seniority,” Bitzer said. “And for constituents of Rowan needing help through the federal system, his office is a major player.”
Bitzer hadn’t seen the maps when contacted Friday afternoon but said from what he had read about the proposed redistricting plan, “it looks like Republicans were able to do what they wanted to do.”
“It looks like folks like Heath Shuler, like Larry Kissell are going to be in some real trouble from what I’ve been able to glean early on here,” he said. Shuler is a Democrat who represents the 11th District in western North Carolina.
The 8th District would take in portions of more GOP-leaning Randolph, Rowan and Davidson counties and leave out more than 70,000 Charlotte-area residents that gave Kissell’s district a more Democratic bent, according to map data.
Bitzer said the proposed district for Kissell would have handed Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain 55 percent of its vote in the 2008 presidential election, “which is not a good sign for a Democrat running at the House level.”
Kissell, who ended Republican Robin Hayes’ five-term tenure in the 8th District in 2008, released a statement Friday calling it “unfortunate that the Legislature has gerrymandered the Congressional maps,” but vowing to
“I plan to seek re-election, return to Congress and continue the fight on behalf of my constituents,” he said. “Should this proposed map pass muster with the courts and become the final map, I will welcome Rowan, Davidson, Randolph and Robeson counties into the 8th District and fight for them as I have fought for the current 8th District.”
Bitzer said the proposed new maps may very well be headed for litigation.
I would not be surprised if these plans don’t end up in court because for the past 30 years, that’s been the tendence of North Carolina redistricting, that the courts ultimately get involved,” he said.
The legislative redistricting committee will hold public hearings on the proposed plan. Nine are scheduled across the state Thursday. The closest will be at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., in Room 143 of the J. Murrey Atkins Library. The hearing begins at 3 p.m. and is scheduled to last until 9 p.m.
Information about more hearings and a form to submit comments about the proposed plan are available at www.ncga.state.nc.us on the General Assembly’s website.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
To see the complete proposal for U.S. House redistricting, click here.
By Scott Jenkins