Anybody who’s ever met the man couldn’t possibly have been surprised by the news that Dan Besse plans to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives.
Besse, a Democrat and longtime member of the Winston-Salem City Council, had been planning for some time to mount another challenge to Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Republican who represents Forsyth County’s 75th District.
He’d been gauging opinion in a quaint, time-consuming and decidedly old-fashioned way — by knocking on doors. He does things like that.
“I was going for it,” he said Monday morning, “even before the court case.”
The court case was the unanimous decision released last week by a three-judge panel in Wake County that tossed the state’s legislative maps as an “extreme partisan” gerrymander which violates the state Constitution’s guarantees of free elections, equal protection and freedoms of speech and assembly.
The 357-page decision, to put it in layman’s terms, is a beat-down of years of computer-aided funny business designed specifically to preserve Republican majorities.
“Fair maps will be a refreshing change,” Besse said. “We haven’t had those for years.”
Matter of math, logic
Under terms of the judges’ ruling, the General Assembly has two weeks — less now — to draw new district maps for the state House and Senate.
Hearings were scheduled to begin Monday in Raleigh. The public might even be afforded a chance to comment before they’re submitted for a vote.
“(The ruling) contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “It’s time to move on.”
Past time actually.
The extremely unsexy topic of legislative (and Congressional) maps has been getting gummed to death in federal and state courts since at least 2013.
The courts struck down maps in 2017 as an illegal racial gerrymander and ruled that 28 districts had been drawn with “near surgical precision” to water down black voting strength.
Last week’s ruling used nearly identical language in finding that the General Assembly had used computer models to draw districts designed specifically to benefit Republican candidates and preserve large majorities in both House and Senate.
Read all 357 pages if you like, but the judges’ ruling basically boils down to math (and logic) that the average third grader can follow.
Nearly 53 percent of North Carolina’s 7.1 million eligible voters turned out last November to cast ballots. It was the largest mid-term turnout since 1990.
And in those legislative races, Democrats received 50 percent of the votes cast in state Senate races and 50.5 percent of the votes in House races.
And somehow, Republicans wound up with 29 of 50 seats in the Senate (58 percent) and 65 of 120 in the House (55 percent).
It just didn’t add up.
Give ’em time
Only a cock-eyed optimist who sees puppies and rainbows at every sunrise still hopes that American elections can be contested over ideas and that vote totals might (somewhat) mirror proportionally the number of seats won.
But here we are.
At least state Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, was honest enough to say out it out loud. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it is possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Lewis was talking about congressional maps, not legislative. But the underlying message is the same.
We’re less than two weeks out from deadline for new maps, so we have a little time to see how this gets resolved. It’s possible that fairly drawn districts emerge and that the judicial panel approves quickly.
Partisan Democrats aren’t holding their breath. “I do expect (the GOP majority) currently in control in Raleigh to make one more try at slipping something past the court that is less than what the court ordered,” Besse said.
If that happens, expect the judicial panel to turn to outside experts to draw the districts. They may already have maps in a computer somewhere. But that will no doubt result in more acrimony and divisiveness.
There is another way, of course.
The General Assembly could decide to set up an independent redistricting commission similar to those used in other states. Go that route, and we stand a chance of restoring some faith in the system.
“Candidly, (lawmakers) rarely act for the right reasons on reform,” Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina told me earlier this summer. “They do it out of fear.”
Maybe that’s true. For the time being — at least until the court’s Sept. 18 deadline — let’s give Berger a chance to be true to his words.
Hey, look. Are those puppies under that rainbow?