GREENSBORO — In an overly warm classroom on a deserted campus, a small, dedicated band of radical reformers politely reviewed blueprints for the coming revolution.

Two dozen or so people — old and young, the loud and preachy, the studious and reserved — took seats Wednesday in a Guilford College science building to talk about … gerrymandering and redistricting.

“It’s not what anybody wants to talk about at cocktail parties, I know,” said Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina, a good governance group based in Raleigh.

All were earnest, true believers. They had come to hear an astonishing success story hatched in the least likely — and until recently, the most ungovernable — state in the union. Three members of the independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission were in town to spread a gospel of fairness and integrity.

The preacher had come to meet the choir. And he was glad to meet them.

If you think none of it matters, that the political system is broken beyond repair and that no one other than a cock-eyed optimist thinks the little guy stands a chance, move along.

But if you haven’t given up yet, if you think Big D representative democracy is salvageable and that campaigns shouldn’t have preordained outcomes, read on.

The preacher had come to meet the choir. And he was darn happy to see them.

California dreaming

In a warm-up act, a staff member for Common Cause asked for a show of hands from the congregation. Six bills to reform the way district lines are drawn in North Carolina are pending.

How many people think Fair Maps legislation has a chance before 2020?

Three hands went up. Even the choir has its share of doubters.

The main event featured three members of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission, an independent, 14-member body which draws legislative and congressional maps without political monkeyshines.

How you say?

Californians directly approved in 2008 the Voters First Act through a ballot initiative, a proposition. (We don’t have that mechanism in North Carolina. Here everything, save bonds and amendments to the state Constitution, goes through the Legislature.)

Business groups, the AARP, the California NAACP, good government groups such as the League of Women Voters and others actively backed the measure.

And it only just squeaked by, with 50.5 percent of the vote. That speaks to the power of special interests and the deep pockets of lobbyists interested in the dysfunction of status quo.

Once approved, the commission started organizing. Prospective members volunteer, submitted essays and sat for videotaped interviews. They were thoroughly vetted — including financials, to make certain nobody had been greased by special interests — and a pool of finalists were named.

Eight members were then selected by … a lottery. Those eight picked six others. The committee had to have five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents/unaffiliated, and had to be diverse. “We had to look like California,” said commission member Cynthia Dai.

Then they got busy. The commission held 34 public hearings, heard from more than 2,700 public speakers and read some 22,000 written suggestions. Then they drew legislative and congressional maps.

“The maps were final and not subject to legislative approval,” Dai said.

Naturally there were court challenges. Three lawsuits were filed and all were rejected unanimously by the California Supreme Court. The total cost of the process, including the lawsuits, was $13 million — couch change for a state that, measured alone, would be the world’s fifth largest economy.

But did it work?

California, which previously had been derided as ungovernable, was saddled with a legislature that had an 8 percent approval rating. Now, public approval has pushed past 50 percent.

Reform has restored public confidence. Think we could use more of that in Raleigh?

Speaking to power

Phillips, who’s been at this for years, took his turn in the pulpit after the presentation. He worked with state Republicans, who prior to 2010 had been the minority party since 1870, when the GOP was howling for reform. Now he’s working with Democrats who find themselves in the same position.

“I’ve been at this a long time and you can see how successful I’ve been,” he said.

Though self-deprecation is always a good hook in public speaking, Phillips and Common Cause have enjoyed some success challenging district maps in the court system.

In 2017, a federal court found 27 North Carolina legislative districts to be illegal racial gerrymanders. Other federal courts ruled that our congressional district maps were illegal gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court heard in March oral arguments and is expected to rule next month.

“It could be a game changer,” Phillips said.

On their face, the numbers show how skewed the system has become.

In 2018, Republicans won 49 percent of the votes cast in state Senate races but won 29 of the chamber’s 50 seats. In the state House, the GOP won 48 percent of the vote and claimed 65 of its 120 seats. In 2016, Republican candidates won 53 percent of the total votes cast — and 10 of the state’s 13 House seats.

Even if the Supreme Court declines to do anything about over-the-top political gerrymandering, good government types sense opportunity elsewhere.

A woman in the audience broached the topic with the money question. “I’ve written my state representatives for years and nothing has happened. Why should we think anything will change?”

The wise guy answer, albeit one grounded in fact, is that she didn’t include a fat campaign donation.

The hope, advocates say, lies in a primal motivator — fear. Fear of losing power and fear of revenge.

“Candidly, (lawmakers) rarely act for the right reasons on reform,” Phillips said. “They do it out of fear.”

Republicans who remember losing 10 seats in the state House in 2018 face a choice. Bet big that they’ll retain majorities in 2020, put their faith in the courts or back some type of districting reform.

“I know I’m preaching to the choir,” said (pastor) Phillips. “But we must hold power accountable.”

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ssexton@wsjournal.com 336-727-7481 @scottsextonwsj

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