Republican voters must pick their man to take on long-time House legislator
Three Republican candidates are attempting to set themselves apart in the hope of winning the May primary and going head-to-head with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp for his seat in the state House.
After three uncontested elections, Rapp will now face opposition from one of three Republican candidates in the November election. The popular Democrat has represented the 118th District — covering Madison and Yancey counties as well as the Canton, Clyde and Maggie Valley areas in Haywood County — for 10 years.
All three Republican candidates subscribe to the main party lines in a few respects: pro-life, anti-gay marriage and cutting down state regulations on businesses. However, each has different degrees of experience and has one or two distinct issues that they are passionate about.
• Michele Presnell, 60, has served as Yancey County Commissioner for two years and owns Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell and mother of three grown children.
Because of her time as a commissioner and the knowledge she gained about state government as a state senator’s wife, Presnell said she is most qualified candidate.
“I think I am the only one who can beat him (Rapp),” Presnell said.
A key goal of Presnell is to pass legislation, requiring residents to present some form of identification when voting. The measure will cut down on voter fraud in the state, Presnell said. Rapp voted against a bill that would have compelled voters to bring identification to the polls.
Presnell also spoke in favor of Amendment One, which would insert a clause in the state constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. There is already a state law against gay marriage in North Carolina, but Presnell said it is not enough, and the constitution must be changed.
“The problem is: you get a judge out here who is very liberal, and he can decide that he doesn’t like that, and he can change it,” Presnell said. “If we change our constitution, that makes all the difference in the world right there.”
• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is a retired field officer with the Department of Revenue and now works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. He and his wife have five children. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000.
Because of his experience enforcing tax regulations with the Department of Revenue, Sigmon said he is passionate about maintaining the state’s current tax levels. Increased taxes are turning the U.S. into a welfare state and “eroding our work ethic,” Sigmon said.
Sigmon listed his time in the construction business, working with small business and his knowledge of state tax regulations as key items that set him apart from his competition
“I know the tax code like I know my grandchild’s face,” he said.
Sigmon said Presnell’s limited experience as a county commissioner and Ben Keilman’s youth give him a leg up in the race.
During a Haywood County Republican Party event last week, Sigmon emphasized that the country was built on Judeo-Christian principles — something that state and federal leaders need to remember when making decisions.
“We’re a Christian nation, always have been, but our founding fathers recognized that we had to have religious tolerance for all religions, but we can’t swap ours for Mohamed,” Sigmon said. “Nations who don’t maintain a cultural heritage do not survive … ours is Judeo-Christian religion. Everybody else we tolerate.”
“You don’t think like Asians or Orientals or Mohamed. You think like a Western Civilization person, don’t you? All your friends do and we accept the other religions,” Sigmon said, echoing a theme that has become a standard talking point for him on the campaign trail.
• Ben Keilman, 23, is a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the UNC- Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.
Although he is the least experienced of the three candidates, Keilman said he is not the least qualified and should not be counted out because of his age.
“Teddy Roosevelt, if you recall, was 23 years old when he got elected to the Michigan state House of Representatives. He was actually the most active member, writing more bills — more conservative bills — than any other,” Keilman said.
Legislation that Keilman would like to work on if elected would allow North Carolinians to opt out of “Obamacare” and No Child Left Behind. States have the right to challenge such mandates, he said.
“The constitution is supposed to restrain the federal government through separation of powers and through the doctrine of enumerated rights,” Keilman said.
Rather than focus on his lack of professional political experience, Keilman commented that he has no experience as a corporation crony and is too young to be in the pocket of big business. And, when people talk about making the world better for their children, Keilman pointed out that he is one of those kids.
“If you want someone who is going to make sure that the (future) is good for your children, vote for me because I have to live with it for the next 70 or 80 years. This is my life,” he said.
Keilman said he is the most committed to the race and is out among the communities talking with constituents — two factors that he said would also help in the general election against Rapp.
“I am the one with the organization. I am the one with the ideas and the planning,” Keilman said. “I have the energy to actually get on the ground with my boots.”
Do I vote in this race?
Haywood County voters in Canton, Clyde, Bethel, Cruso, Fines Creek and Crabtree vote in this race. Most voters in the Ivy Hills precinct do, too, but part of Ivy Hills lies in another House district so your best bet is to call the Haywood County Board of Elections and ask them to check your address. As a rule of thumb, Maggie Valley proper and Jonathan Creek are in this House district but the Dellwood area is not.
You also vote in this race if you live anywhere in Madison or Yancey counties.
Gingrich’s rise a sad indictment on GOP field
For Newt Gingrich to have floated to the top of the Republican presidential slough tells what a dismal swamp it is. As most of the other alternatives to Mitt Romney have turned out to be dim bulbs, the former House Speaker may look bright by comparison. But the appearance of his brilliance blinds people to his malignant ambition, demagoguery, opportunism, and deeply flawed character.
Former Rep. Kenneth A. “Buddy” MacKay Jr. of Florida, who served six years in the U.S. House of Representatives with Gingrich, considers him “the most amoral man I ever met.” During his nearly three decades in public life, I never heard MacKay disparage the character of anyone else.
Many Republican leaders share Democrat MacKay’s aversion. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says Gingrich lacks “the character traits necessary to a great president.” Conservative columnist George Will denounced Gingrich’s “vanity and rapacity.” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that Gingrich “has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with 1960s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance.”
Gingrich’s serial adultery — which he now conveniently claims to repent — is not the half of it. He’s also a serial hypocrite. He hounded Rep. Jim Wright out of the Speakership and out of the Congress for an unethical book deal but then snared one of his own, for $4.5-million, that he was forced to return. The Ethics Committee brought other charges and the House reprimanded him by a vote of 395 to 28.
After impeaching President Clinton for a sexual affair with a staffer, Gingrich admitted to the same thing. More recently, he denounced the lending agency Freddie Mac but took $1.6-million for giving the firm “strategic advice,” a euphemism for insider lobbying and influence peddling. He once favored the individual health insurance mandate that he now decries.
Gingrich exudes contempt for the Constitution and the separation of powers. His threats to ignore Supreme Court decisions he does not like and to encourage Congress to subpoena judges to explain their opinions are the campaign planks of a would-be dictator.
In Congress, Gingrich was chiefly responsible for degrading American politics from civil discourse to civil war. That’s how he forced out the previous Republican leader, the very decent Bob Michel of Illinois, and set out to destroy the Democratic opposition (the contagion spread nationwide, not excepting North Carolina). Anyone who purports to deplore Washington as it has become and then votes for the person who made it so will be no less a hypocrite than Gingrich himself.
GOP set to pick McClellan substitute
The 36-member executive committee of the Macon County Republican Party will meet next week to nominate a replacement for county Commissioner Brian McClellan.
McClellan announced that he would resign as a commissioner following his second driving-while-impaired charge in two-and-a-half years. The four remaining members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will hold an 8 a.m. meeting to accept McClellan’s resignation on Dec. 1. That clears the way for the local GOP to pick a replacement, a job that falls to the party because McClellan is a Republican. Commissioners, in an expected rubberstamp, plan to vote on the nomination in their regular Dec. 13 meeting.
The Republican Party meets Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Courtroom A of the Macon County courthouse.
“I want somebody who can work well with the other board members,” Republican Party Chair Chris Murray said Monday. “I’d want to have somebody who is not divisive … and who is a loyal Republican.”
That nominee must be a resident of the Highlands area, which McClellan represents.
McClellan served as chairman of the county commission, another position that now must be decided. In Macon, the board votes on the chairman. Commissioner Kevin Corbin is likely to become the next commission chairman. Corbin, a Republican and a longtime school board member, was appointed commissioner to fill the remaining term of Jim Davis after Davis won a state senate seat last November. The Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the commission board, making it likely they will pick a Republican as chairman.
“I’d love to see Kevin considered for that position,” Murray said. “But that’s really not the business of the Republican Party — that’s up to the commissioners.”
Corbin on Monday confirmed that he would certainly consider becoming chairman if that’s how the cookie crumbles, as it almost surely will.
Although Corbin was appointed and not elected to the board, he’s no novice when it comes to chairing meetings. He served as chairman for 14 years of his five terms (20 years) on the Macon County Board of Education, plus filled in as vice chairman for a few years.
Corbin, during that time, attained a solid reputation for being able to cross party lines (admittedly not as difficult a task on the ostensibly nonpartisan board of education), and served as chief conductor of what were generally viewed as efficiently run, well-managed meetings.
McClellan received his second DWI charge Nov. 18 in Jackson County. He called fellow commissioners a few days later to tell them he planned to resign.
“I do support his decision — I think it’s the right one,” Corbin said, adding that in his view, McClellan had been an outstanding commissioner for the citizens of Macon County.
Republican candidates pile on for the chance to take on Shuler
At least eight Republicans have lined up to spar with incumbent Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler for Western North Carolina’s 11th U.S. Congressional seat, but they have to knock their fellow party members out of the competition first.
The controlling political party — whether Democrat or Republican — has never had an easy time securing the 11th District seat, but the cluster of Republicans planning to file will face better odds this election season following the re-organization of the state’s congressional districts.
“This is always a competitive district,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “I think the big change this year is redistricting.”
The 11th District formerly included Asheville, with its traditionally liberal voters. After some shuffling earlier this year, however, Asheville was booted out of the district while Republican-leaning counties were brought into the fold. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization.
“It makes it a lot more likely that a Republican is going to win,” Cooper said.
Even though the district is weighted more heavily toward Republican candidates, it in no way ensures a win for the party, especially given Shuler’s appeal to conservative mountain voters despite the word “Democrat” beside his name.
A Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters in 2010 revealed a striking anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.
The huge field of candidates could be daunting to voters in the run-up to the May primary. Having too many candidates divides the Republican Party’s funding and support.
“The key (now) will be whittling down the field,” Cooper said. “The party as a whole will be a lot better off if they can get behind one candidate sooner.”
But, the growing field of candidates does not concern Jeff Hunt, a candidate from Brevard, who touted his 17 years of experience as a district attorney.
“The more the better,” Hunt said.
Once the party has narrowed the field to one or two candidates, name recognition will be one of its biggest hurdles.
“It’s going to be huge,” Cooper said. “I think that is a major reason why incumbents win.”
Compared to Shuler, an incumbent and hometown football superstar, the current Republican candidates have little or no name recognition. The candidate who may be able to beat Shuler is “a moderate Republican, a fiscal conservative,” Cooper said.
“Somebody with some name recognition who isn’t too far to the right,” he said.
The district is now 38 percent registered Republicans and 36 percent Democrat — a toss-up that could put the contest in the hands of the unaffiliated voters making up the remaining 26 percent.
Republican primary candidate Mark Meadows, who hails from Jackson County, said the change makes Western North Carolina one of the strongest, if not the strongest, Republican districts in the state.
Meadows, a 52-year-old real estate developer from Cashiers, noted that even with Asheville as a part of the old district, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain still received 52 percent of the vote in the 11th Congressional District in 2008.
As a testament to the shift in party leanings, almost 59 percent of the district’s voters would have cast their ballot for McCain under the new district lines.
Chris Petrella, a 44-year-old candidate from Spindale, said it is no surprise that so many Republicans are entering the race. Ousting Shuler, given his appeal among moderates and even many conservatives, was a daunting prospect before redistricting took Asheville’s liberal voters out of the picture.
But don’t expect the candidates to tell you that, said Petrella, who owns an economic development firm.
“The politically correct answer is that Obama has done something so terribly wrong that it is time to change the change,” Petrella said of why the Republican field is so crowded. “Any idiot who wants to have Congressman on their resume has decided to throw their hat in the ring.”
But it isn’t going to be as easy as it looks, not even with the new voting demographic in the 11th district favoring Republicans.
“There is a misperception that winning the nominee in the Republican primary will automatically anoint you to winning the general election,” Petrella said, adding that he had gotten into the race “before it looked easy.”
Candidates will official declare their intention to run during a filing period in the month February.
Because he is running for re-election in a swing district, from a national standpoint, Shuler is one of the Democrats to beat. If Shuler expects to win, he must spend time in the district and remind people of what he has accomplished during his term, Cooper said.
“Good old-fashioned retail politics is going to win this race,” he said.
Former senator Carpenter dies
Robert C. Carpenter, a towering figure in Republican politics in Western North Carolina who served as state senator for eight terms, died Saturday. He was 87.
Familiarly called “Senator Bob” by constituents and political foes alike, the Macon County native had a knack for building bridges with his Democratic counterparts that transcended ideological differences.
A devout Catholic, Carpenter could not be budged politically on certain core conservative beliefs, such as abortion. But when it came to Carpenter’s political and personal passion — working on health issues, particularly in the mental-health arena — this hardcore conservative worked closely with anyone, regardless of party affiliation, who might share his desire to help.
One of Carpenter’s daughters had contracted La Crosse encephalitis as a young child, resulting in a lifetime of mental disabilities.
“He was a giant of a man who will not be replaced,” said state Sen. Jim Davis, who in November became the first Republican since Carpenter lost his seat in 2004 to represent the 50th District. “I was a better man for having known him.”
Davis met Carpenter in 1974 when he was seeking financing to set up his dental practice in Macon County. Carpenter was then with First Union.
“He became my friend when he loaned me the money I needed to open my dental practice,” Davis said jokingly. “I got to be his friend when I paid it all back.”
Chris Murray, chairman of the Macon County Republican Party, described Carpenter as the “quintessential public servant.”
“He was always great to give counsel and advice,” Murray said. “Bob was a charming gentleman.”
Carpenter was a bank executive by trade. He began his political life after retirement.
GOP redistricting leaves Davis vulnerable to Democrats
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, doesn’t mince words: he knows perfectly well that his budding state political career is being jeopardized by his own party’s redistricting proposals.
“But it follows the state constitution, and I’m in favor of that,” Davis said. “The districts are clean, and they are fair, and I think following the law is a lot more important than catering to my political career.”
Davis, a Franklin orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner, beat incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County, during last year’s election in a Republican scrum that saw conservatives wrest control of the General Assembly. The victory won the GOP the right to reconfigure the state’s political landscape for the next decade.
But in recompiling state House and Senate districts to comply with population changes as recorded in the 2010 U.S. census, the GOP sure didn’t do party-member Davis any favors. The 50th Senate District has been redrawn minus Republican stronghold Transylvania County, and including all of Democratic-heavy Haywood County.
Davis knows that he could be fighting for his state political life.
The race last year was close: Davis trumped Snow by just more than 200 votes.
Not too fast, boys
“The 50th could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but it’s far from a sure thing,” said North Carolina political expert Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
With the reconfiguring, Gov. Beverly Perdue still would have won the district 50-46 percent, Cooper pointed out. On the other hand, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole would have won 49-47 percent over challenger Kay Hagen, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate seat, and Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, would have ended in a dead heat, he said. Despite all of those relatively close races, however, Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, would have won soundly, 57-44 percent.
“It’s an interesting one for political prognosticators,” Cooper said. “We talk a lot about ‘incumbency advantage,’ the name recognition and benefits that come from being an incumbent, but with two potential challengers who have been in office before, it’s tough to know exactly how it will play out.”
Careful what you wish for
Janie Benson, chairman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, is excited about the prospects for her party.
“We feel like we do have two strong candidates,” she said.
Republicans, on the other hand, are left in the awkward position of supporting their party’s proposed redistricting plan even while acknowledging Davis has been left vulnerable.
“It’s going to make it very rough on Jim,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It really hurt to lose Transylvania. But, it’s logical, and it equalizes the counties (population numbers).”
Slaughter said the Republican Party would need to get conservative voters “revitalized” in Haywood County, and that the GOP has its work cut out for it to hold on to the 50th.
Ironically, Haywood County’s Republican Party openly lobbied for the county to be returned to one district. Haywood currently is a split county in both the Senate and the House, and is represented by two different legislators.
County Republicans, apparently with some success, argued that two House and two Senate districts are confusing to voters and have diluted the county’s legislative influence. Local Democrats fought the change they now are embracing joyfully, maintaining only a few weeks ago that Haywood County residents were well served by having two senators and two representatives.
Davis said the Haywood County precincts he currently represents are solidly Republican, but that he’s now picking up strong Democratic-dominated precincts, based on party registrations.
But, he said, it’s impossible to argue with the geographic logic of having the 50th Senate District made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties, as it once was.
For his part, former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County, doesn’t believe that GOP redistricting leaders were trying to develop a perfectly balanced and fair political scenario in this part of the state. He thinks they simply ran out of North Carolina counties while trying to juggle things elsewhere in favor of Republicans.
“They didn’t have a lot of options at this end of the state,” Queen said. “You can’t get behind John.”
Cherokee County is the state’s westernmost county, bordered by Tennessee and Georgia.
Elsewhere, the GOP’s proposed redistricting does appear to favor the party’s chances of retaining House and Senate seats. Transylvania County would shift from the 50th to the 48th District, further locking down the Republican’s hold through Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, the rules committee chairman in the Senate.
Also shifting in a dominoes-like manner? Polk County would move from the 48th to the 47th District, and more of the 48th District’s precincts in Buncombe County would shift to the 49th District. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, represents the 49th.
“Six incumbent Democrats were placed in districts with other incumbent Democrats, compared to three Republicans who were doubled up,” Cooper said. “There is also some evidence that Democratic voters were ‘packed’ into districts, increasing the chances that the Republicans hold onto more seats or expand their lead.
“We can’t forget, however, that the Democrats would do the same thing — and did do the same thing 10 years earlier. It is one reason these districts are so difficult to analyze — we tend to compare them to the existing districts that were drawn by Democrats.”
Democrats: GOP blatantly gerrymandered WNC’s seat in Congress
New Congressional districts crafted by state GOP leaders that appear to position the party for political domination in North Carolina for the next decade drew sharp criticism late last week during a state hearing in Cullowhee.
Asheville and parts of Buncombe County would be booted out of the 11th Congressional district and lumped in with Piedmont counties and metropolitan areas on the outskirts of Charlotte.
The liberal voting bloc of Asheville would be replaced with four conservative-voting northern mountain counties — tipping the district decidedly more Republican and making it difficult for a Democratic Congressman, even one as conservative as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to get elected.
And that smacks, opponents said, of in-your-face gerrymandering by the GOP. Because if the plan stands despite the court challenges that are sure to come, Republicans will have neatly sliced out and diluted the liberal votes Democrats have long counted on from the Asheville area. The mountain district would shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. House District map
SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. Senate District map
The districts must make geographic sense to not be overturned. If Democrats can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines could send North Carolina’s redistricting efforts back to the drawing board.
“Sirs, you overplayed your hand with this one,” said Janie Benson, who chairs the Haywood County Democratic Party. “It may be good politics for the moment, but it is not good for the people of Western North Carolina. Asheville is the soul of the area. Asheville is the historic, the judicial, the health, the shopping and the entertainment center of our area.”
Benson was one of at least 12 Democrats alone from Haywood County who gathered at Western Carolina University for an interactive redistricting hearing that included various other North Carolina sites.
A before-the-event poll at WCU by The Smoky Mountain News found one lone Republican signed up to speak, Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. He, not surprisingly, thought the proposed map simply looked great.
“There will be more minorities involved this way than were before,” Slaughter said. “I really don’t have a problem with it. This comes closer to the equalization needed, population-wise.”
N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, said as a result of the redistricting Buncombe County would actually gain more representation than it has ever enjoyed before — it would, he pointed out, have two congressional voices instead of just one.
“Most of the bigger cities in the state have more than one representative,” Apodaka said. “It’s a sign of things happening all over the country.”
Jeffrey Israel of Haywood County, however, said he could find no historical basis for removing Asheville from the 11th Congressional District.
“It attempts merely to subvert the traditional political will of the western mountains and can only be thought to stab a knife in the progressive heart of Western North Carolina,” Israel said.
In addition to threatening Democrats’ hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts as a result of the redistricting.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, before the official hearing started, said that he believes “gerrymandering was wrong in the early 1800s, and it is still wrong in 2011-12. It does not benefit the voters or serve anyone well. I’m opposed to either party redistricting against logic and geography, and I don’t think it will stand in court.”
The GOP won the right to control the redistricting process after taking control of the state General Assembly in last November’s election. Redistricting takes place every 10 years after new census numbers are released.
“No matter how you shape it, now matter how you slice it, Asheville is not a Piedmont community,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. He said compactness is out the window under the new map, with a drive from Avery County in the north part of the district to Cherokee County in the west taking four or five hours — if you don’t stop for restroom breaks along the way.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
N.C. House and Senate districts due out this week
The maps will reflect new state legislative districts. How western counties are sliced and diced has been the source of much speculation, and will impact which party has an easier time getting elected to seats in the state legislature.
On Monday, July 18, a public hearing on the state redistricting process will be held at Western Carolina University. The session will be held from 3 until 9 p.m. in Room 133-B of the Cordelia Camp Building on the WCU campus. Speaker registration will begin at 2 p.m.
Members of the public may comment on the current district plans, communities of interest, voting history or any other topic related to redistricting. Each speaker is limited to five minutes.
Two weeks ago, state GOP leaders released redistricting plans for the state’s congressional districts. Democrats have accused Republicans of gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to favor the likelihood of Republican candidates being elected.
To sign up for the public hearing, or to submit comments on line, go to www.ncleg.net/sessions/2011/publichearings/redistricting.html.
Shuler left with Republican-leaning district after new maps slice liberal Asheville out of WNC
Democrats are crying foul over new Congressional district lines that with seemingly surgical precision slice the City of Asheville, a liberal stronghold, out of the 11th Congressional District.
The maps, drawn by state Republican leaders in the the GOP-dominated General Assembly, are no doubt a political move, according to Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
“This is the game that both parties play,” Cooper said. “They know exactly what they are doing.”
The new 11th Congressional District would include Mitchell, Avery, Caldwell and Burke counties. In exchange, the district divests itself of Asheville and eastern Buncombe, as well as Polk County. The mountain district will shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.
The result: a far more conservative voting base, and much more difficult re-election campaing next year for three-term Democrat Congressman Heath Shuler of Waynesville.
Shuler seized the district in 2006 over eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor, R-Transylvania County, and has easily won back his seat every election since. His opponent last fall was considered an admirable opponent, and the year was a watershed for Republicans, but even then Shuler handily kept his seat with more than 54 percent of the vote.
That may not be the case in 2012 given the new district lines, however. Shuler is one of several previously Democratic-leaning districts that has been infused with just enough GOP voters to tip the balance.
As for what to do with all those Democratic voters? The best bet is to lump as many as possible into as few districts as possible. In otherwords, pick a few Democratic-leaning districts to be sacrifical lambs. Stack them heavily with Democrats, while spreading Republican voters around to have just enough of an edge in as many districts as possible.
“Any vote after 50 plus one is a wasted vote,” Cooper said. “The reason you do that is not to dominate a few districts but to win a lot of districts by a little bit.”
All the while, however, the districts must make geographic sense or else risk being overturned in a court battle. If the other party can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines is likely.
In this instance, Cooper doesn’t think the new mountain districts cross that line. He sees the districts being geographically close enough to be bullet proof in court, yet still achieving their purpose of favoring Republicans.
“They did a great job of it. The more I look at the more impressed I am,” Cooper said.
Mike Clampitt of the Swain County Republican Party said the redrawing wasn’t tit-for-tat as it might appear — Democrats have a long history of gerrymandering districts in North Carolina — but a case of putting likes with likes.
“This balances the playing field,” Clampitt said. “Asheville is more like the Greensboro and Charlotte area.”
That metropolitan, urban mindset is at odds with the rural understandings and needs of the bulk of the 11th Congressional District, Clampitt said.
Members of the opposing party see the situation differently, however: “Democrats will not take this lying down,” promised Janie Benson of the Haywood County Democratic Party.
“I’m stunned, because the distance between Caldwell county and Cherokee county is so great,” Benson said, adding that the redistricting proposed by Republicans is a “blatant” attempt to wrest the district from Democrats.
“Frankly the redistricting maps that I’ve seen just look unfair,” she said. “The Democrats, to my knowledge, have never been so obvious in whatever they were doing. This just seems almost like a punishment, and it feels that way somewhat.”
In addition to threatening Democrats hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts.
But Kirk Callahan of Haywood County, a self-described conservative, believes Republicans might be missing the mark some. While cautioning he hasn’t had time to fully assess the potential voter fallout, Callahan thinks the growing bloc of unaffiliated voters could actually dictate who wins and who loses.
“They are key,” Callahan said. “A candidate has to earn the votes, because they are not going to be swayed by party labels or an appeal to party loyalty.”
Callahan, by way of example, pointed to Taylor’s defeat, saying he was dismayed by the longtime congressman’s unabashed support of earmarks.
“That didn’t sit well with me, because (earmarks) really corrupted the budgeting process,” he said.
Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.
Across the state, there were five districts that posted major geographical shifts. Four are seats currently held by vulnerable Democrats that have now seen the scales tip in their district to favor Republicans — as is the case with Shuler’s district. The fifth that showed the biggest changes was held by a vulnerable Republican, but is now more solidly Republican.
“It is really clear they targeted these vulnerable Democrats,” Cooper said.
Shuler’s new district would be the most Republican-leaning district in the state when judging by those who voted for McCain over Obama in 2008.
Shuler is a conservative Democratic at best — others considered him a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only — and plays well with conservative Southern Democrats and even many Republicans.
But under the new district lines, even that may not be enough, Cooper said.
“For Shuler to win he would have to practicaly completely separate himself from the Democratic party,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a really intersting race.”
Why the new voting maps?
Every 10 years, along with the census, state legislative and Congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the population change. As the population grows, so does the number of people each elected leader represents.
The state’s Congressional District will need to grow from the current 619,177 people to the 733,499 each, plus or minus 5 percent.
Since growth was more robust in urban areas, districts in rural regions like Western North Carolina will have to expand geographically to take in the required number of people.
Under the proposed new maps, which sever Asheville from the district, it would lose 9,000 Democrats and gain 26,000 Republicans.
The Department of Justice issues guidelines governing how states can and can’t be carved up, and they must approve a map before it can be put into action.
Currently, redistricting is done by legislators and is a highly partisan affair. With every redistricting comes a court challenge from one side or the other, claiming that the lines are unfair.
But under new legislation recently passed by the state House, the process would become staff-driven, with a simple up-or-down vote by legislators. It’s based on a system long used by Iowa, where no redistricting has been to court in the four decades since the system was put into place.
The measure is now headed to the Senate.
Weigh in on new Congressional districts
A public hearing on the new Congressional district maps will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 7, at Western Carolina University in the Cordelia Camp Building.
It is one of nine across the state on the same day and time. There is also one in the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech.
The hearings are sponsored by the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee, and anyone wishing to comment can sign up online at www.ncga.state.nc.us or in person the day of the hearing. Written comments can also be submitted on the North Carolina General Assembly’s Website.
State budget showdown: Perdue vetoes budget, but GOP poised to override it
Governor Beverly Perdue nixed the $19.7 billion state budget put on her desk by the General Assembly Sunday, winning herself a place in state history.
She is the first governor to veto a budget since veto powers were granted in 1997, and she told lawmakers that education was the impetus for her action.
“For the first time, we have a legislature that is turning its back on our schools, our children, our longstanding investments in education and our future economic prospects,” said Perdue in a statement and speech last Sunday.
Perdue’s veto is unlikely to hold, however. The GOP is expressing confidence that it has the votes necessary to override her historic thumbs down. Five House Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the budget, enough to override the veto if they continue bucking their party. Republicans have a tight enough grasp of the Senate not to need Democrat help for an override vote in that chamber.
Perdue posited that the budget as-is would cause “generational damage” by cutting funds to K-12 schools, preschool programs More at Four and Smart Start and elderly care.
It takes a super-majority of 60 percent to override the Governor’s veto.
In the House, that means 72 votes. There are 68 Republicans in the House — four short of what’s needed to buck the Governor’s veto. But five Democrats had previously sided with Republicans in voting for the budget, and Representative Phil Haire, D-Sylva, doesn’t think those five Democrats can be persuaded to come back to their own party.
“Some of them were promised something in the budget,” Haire said.
Haire personally voted against the budget proffered by Republican leadership.
“I think it is going to have a devastating effect on North Carolina, and it will takes us years to regain the status where we are now,” said Haire.
In the Senate, there are 31 Republicans compared to 19 Democrats, one more than needed to meet the super majority criteria.
The Governor and Democrats in the legislature are pushing to keep a 1-cent sales tax that Republicans want to eliminate. Keeping the extra sales tax, say Perdue and other Democrats, could raise $900,000 to fill the more than $2 billion funding gap facing the state.
Haire doubts Republicans will capitulate on their position on the sales tax.
“Not no, but heck no. If they do that they renege on their whole campaign promise,” Haire said.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said keeping the sales tax, billed as a “temporary measure” when it was put in place two years ago, is non-negotiable.
“It expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it. If the legislature wanted to have a penny sales tax, they’d have to introduce a bill and vote on it, and that’s just not going to happen,” said Davis.
With Republicans unwilling to compromise on the sales tax, Perdue’s veto, if it stood, would accomplish little but a prolonged stalemate.
“The first of July you get to a shut down if you don’t have a budget,” Haire said.
NC General Assembly update
Most people predicted that this session of the North Carolina General Assembly was going to be fast and furious, and it appears that is indeed the case. The GOP-led General Assembly is advancing legislation that Democrats have traditionally not supported, like raising the cap on charter schools and opposing the federal health care law passed last year by Congress.
In addition, the $3.7 billion projected budget shortfall is also forcing lawmakers to look all over for money, a challenge that is also highlighting the different philosophies of both parties.
The Golden Leaf as a golden egg
It appears a move is afoot to snag money that is supposed to be headed for the Golden LEAF Foundation.
This fund was established from the tobacco settlement proceeds and is supposed to be used to promote the “long-term, economic advancement of rural, economically distressed, and tobacco-dependent counties.” That said, the $68 million annual settlement payment is being eyed by GOP leaders in the General Assembly as a piece of the deficit-reduction puzzle.
On Thursday, the Senate gave tentative approval to a plan that would take proposal that would take money from approximately 20 state accounts and the three funds supported by the 1998 national tobacco settlement — Golden LEAF gets half the tobacco settlement money, and two sister funds, the Health and Wellness Trust Fund and the Tobacco Trust Fund, share the other half.
The vote was 30-18 to take what would amount to about $142 million in all.
An email was sent out yesterday by the Golden Leaf Foundation president saying the idea was a bad one, and that other states have taken similar actions with bad results.
“That’s not the answer. Other states have used their tobacco settlement funds long ago to patch their budget. Now their money is gone, and they face the same issues we face but don’t have access to the assets you currently do through the Golden LEAF Foundation to create jobs and expand economic opportunity. Golden LEAF has helped create an anticipated 4,300 jobs and over $900 million in capital investments in the last two years alone, wrote Golden Leaf president Dan Gerlach.
A Western North Carolina source who is involved in an economic development project funded by the Golden Leaf Fund told The Smoky Mountain News on Thursday that conference calls were held around the region on Thursday to discuss the possibility the fund would be raided and ongoing projects might be stopped in their tracks.
So far this issue has been mostly split right down party lines, with Republicans supporting taking the money and Democrats — along with Gov. Bev Perdue — insisting the money stay where it is. Some Republicans have suggested that the Golden LEAF Fund should be dissolved and all of its $600 million in assets go toward deficit reduction.
N.C.’s own health care debate
Rep. Ray Rapp, D- Mars Hill, wrote in his e-newsletter that debate on repealing the federal health care law was one of the two dominant topics from the General Assembly’s first full week in session (the other was the economy).
Republicans in the House introduced and passed a bill to block the requirement in the federal health care law that requires everyone to buy health insurance by 2014. The bill — which passed essentially along party lines, 66-50 — would force Attorney General Roy Cooper to join other states in challenging the federal law.
“It only seems fair that we ask everyone to take personal responsibility for their own health by purchasing their own insurance so that we can require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ health policies until age 26, eliminate life time limits and provide tax credits for small businesses that want to cover their employees,” said Rapp, who has been appointed Democratic whip for this session of the General Assembly.
Rapp and other Democrats point out that the Attorney General has said it would cost $344,000 to join the suit, tough money to come by in the face of the projected budget shortfall. Both Rapp and Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, voted against the bill. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, voted for the bill.
In other General Assembly news
• As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times Friday, Feb. 4, bills are progressing in both the House and Senate that would ban the practice of involuntary annexation, which forces residents near town limits into the town’s jurisdiction. Annexations typically mean additional city taxes and are usually accompanied by more services.
However, towns now have the right to grow their boundaries even if the residents to be annexed don’t support the move. These laws would ban that type annexation.
“I believe that people should have the opportunity to vote whether or not they should be included in an adjacent municipality,” said rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican lawmaker from Buncombe County.
The bills would halt all involuntary annexations until July 1, 2012, during which time GOP leaders want to craft a new set of laws governing annexation.
• The Associated Press is reporting that Republicans are in support of a bill to lift the cap on charter schools and allowing proceeds from the state lottery to be used to build new charter schools.
State laws governing charter schools have changed very little since a bill passed in 1996 allowing for up to 100 charter schools in North Carolina. Because of the cap, charter school supporters say students in 53 of the state’s counties don’t have charter schools. The current 100 schools have a waiting list of 20,000 families, according to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Charter schools don’t charge tuition and have open enrollment. They are run by private boards and exempt from many of the rules that are in place in traditional public schools. The state money allocated for each student follows that student to a charter school, but so far charters have not received any lottery money.
Opponents also worry that lifting the requirement that enrollment in charter schools reflect the general racial and ethnic composition of a county could lead to problems. They argued for slowly raising the allowable number of schools rather than a blanket lifting of the cap.
“What I do not want to do is create a dual system of schools and charter schools,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.
The bill is currently in committee.