11/28/07 — District line battle includes Wayne

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District line battle includes Wayne

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 28, 2007 1:45 PM

If a lawsuit filed earlier this month by a group of Republican voters over the state General Assembly's 2003 redistricting plan is successful, attorney Robert Hunter of Charlotte said the impact will likely be felt in Wayne County during the 2008 elections.

"It'll affect most of the districts in the state," he said. "All these things have ripple effects."

Representing the plaintiffs against the state Board of Elections and the state Attorney General's office, Hunter explained that the suit alleges that the legislature improperly drew House and Senate district lines in 2003.

And, though complicated in the details, he continued, the problem is basically two-fold.

The complaint contends that some districts were not drawn according to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states to not dilute minority voting power. Others, however, it says, were drawn to be majority minority, but not in the manner prescribed by the Voting Rights Act.

Additionally, the complaint also contends that in still other districts, legislators failed to follow the state constitutional requirements that counties be grouped together in the smallest possible entities.

Further, he contends that the General Assembly had the necessary U.S. Census information to properly draw the districts, but that it was ignored.

"Our contention is that in 2003, they had the correct figures but didn't use them," Hunter said.

And, according to the suit, they believe those figures were ignored because of the involvement of former House Speaker Jim Black, who is now in prison on a federal corruption conviction.

"The failure of the legislature to use the corrected data was an intentional decision by Black and his allies to politically benefit from the use of incorrect data by arranging the election districts to maintain their control of the North Carolina House of Representatives," Hunter said in the complaint.

Although naming few specific districts that it is challenging as improperly drawn, the suit does refer to the wrongful combinations of several counties, including Wayne, Greene and Lenoir.

It also repeatedly references an August decision by the state Supreme Court that found Pender County to be improperly split between two House districts -- a case that also could involve House District 21, which includes Sampson and Wayne counties, and is the home of plaintiff Homer Marshall of Clinton.

The problem, Hunter explained, is that not only was District 21 improperly put together with Wayne County, a portion of it should be included with District 18 in Pender County in order to properly group minority voters.

"Current House of Representative District 21 violates the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment as a racial gerrymander requiring that the majority minority portion of Sampson County be included into its natural configuration in a majority minority District 18 in Pender and New Hanover counties," the suit reads.

And if the court holds that to be true, that could mean that Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, would no longer represent Wayne.

But, Marshall emphasized, this isn't a campaign against Bell.

"I just looked at the districts and I didn't like the way they are drawn up," he said. "I'm black and I deeply regret having to take part in this, but in order to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, this could hurt a couple of black districts."

"Bell is my friend and I definitely don't want to do anything to hurt that. He has represented us well. He has done a terrific job and I'm sure he'll be there when this thing is done -- at least I hope he will."

But for now, Bell said that he's just going to wait and see what happens.

"I haven't heard anything other what just what I've read in the paper," he said. "I think the districts were drawn fairly. But I've had white people say to me that they can't win in my district. On the other hand, I've lived when it was almost impossible for a black person to win.

"I'd like to think that I don't represent just black people, but that I represent everybody in my district."

Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, another legislator who's relationship with Wayne County could end up changing, also isn't too worried.

"I'm not paying any attention to it," he said. "Redistricting occurs every 10 years when they do the census anyway. I can't imagine them doing anything much to change anything this far into this district cycle."

Hunter, however, is pushing for the districts to be redrawn before the 2008 elections.

"Based on the foregoing facts and circumstances, there exists no lawful legislative districts for use in the 2008 primaries or general election," he said.

And he believes there is time for the changes to be made.

"They've had short windows before. This one's not too short," he said.