Legislators meet; coalition calls for redistricting

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The first day of the so-called long legislative session came and went without a hitch.

The first day of the so-called "long legislative session" came and went without a hitch Wednesday, with all 170 lawmakers in the NC House of Representatives and Senate taking the oath of office.

The day was consumed with mostly housekeeping work (rules set, a few committee heads named, staffers nominated and confirmed, etc). Bills could be filed directly after the two sessions ended Wednesday, but they won't be taken up for two weeks. The next 14 days are set aside for more housekeeping, as lawmakers changes offices and get new assignments.

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The day started with a news conference held by myriad advocacy groups pushing for redistricting reform. The groups ranged from liberal to conservative and found common ground in the idea that North Carolina's election districts need to be overhauled.

Those advocating for reform included the NC Justice Center, Common Cause NC, AARP, NC Matters, the John Locke Foundation, League of Women Voters, and Planned Parenthood, to name just a few. Here are a few of their stated reasons for their support of a new non-partisan process to create election maps.

WATCH: Coalition calls for independent redrawing of congressional districts
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A coalition called for independent redrawing of state congressional districts on Wednesday.

Entrepreneur David Meeker represented business interests: "We are speaking out against gerrymandering because it is crushing North Carolina's economy."

Brenda Rogers, with the League of Women Voters: "We call for an independent agency to draw the districts and that independent agency should reflect the geographic, racial, and gender makeup of the state population and no elected official should be a member."

Rick Glazier with the NC Justice Center: "A return to bipartisan and less polarized governments, a focus on the central issues of the state will only occur when we have far less deeply gerrymandered districts and far more house members and senators that represent a moderate and central influence in the communities from which they're elected. Demographics have changed and no party knows where those demographics are going to land after that. The best time for Redistricting reform is when there are questions for either side."

Marybe McMillan with the NC AFL-CIO: "Each election cycle we encourage our members to vote. We tell them every vote matters. But sadly, in our current gerrymandered system, that's simply not true. The deck is stacked so fully in favor of one party's candidate that it's often not a competitive race and because of that, too many candidates run unopposed. Today we ask lawmakers to restore our faith in this general assembly and this process. Create an independent redistricting commission and do it now because the future of our democracy depends on it."

Mitch Kokai with the John Locke Foundation: "It is entirely consistent to argue that the maps drawn for the 2012 and the 2016 elections on the congressional side were legal and constitutional but also bad; that the process was bad and should be made better. What we need to do is take the process out of the hands of the people who stand to benefit from the new maps. So whether it's a commission or set this up in a way such that legislative staff draw the maps. You want to have a process that is removed from people who stand to benefit from the process and you want to rules that will bind map makers and limit the prospects for mapmaking mischief that we've seen in this state from both democrats and republicans depending on who's in charge and who's trying to build and maintain, preserve their partisan advantage."

Bob Phillips with Common Cause NC: "We are a unique state. How many states have both legislative and congressional maps struck down within the course of a year? In this last election, you had thousands of people went to the polls and found only one name on the ballot for their legislative race. Again, people understand that's not the way it should be; that there's something wrong with that. It's not against your self-interest to support Redistricting reform. It really isn't There's not a danger that you'll lose power. In fact, if anything, in both parties, if you accept reform, you're at least ensuring, sort of like an insurance policy, that you'll always have a voice and that the minority party won't be literally gerrymandered into irrelevance as the Democrats did to Republicans and as Republicans have done to Democrats.

Doug Dickerson with AARP: "Our state should look at good governance practices such as Iowa model and others so we have compact districts so voters can have meaningful participation in the election process."

Many of those pushing redistricting reform in North Carolina use Iowa as an example of how it can work. "Iowa's been successful," said Rick Glazier of the NC Justice Center. "That's one of the big issues. It's been in play over 40 years and through five election cycles. Parties switch every ten years as it's turned out under that model. It's been extraordinarily successful and can be applied to states that have voting rights issues."

But top Republicans aren't so sure.

WATCH: NC House Rep. David Lewis on redistricting
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NC House Rep. David Lewis on redistricting.

"I think partisanship is an inherent part of who we are," said Rep. David Lewis, Rules Committee co-chair from Harnett County. "And I think it will always have some role in the decisions that we make and that includes Redistricting. It should not be a predominant factor, but it will always be a factor. Whether you acknowledge it or not it'll always be a factor and to not acknowledge that is either naive or dishonest."

But Lewis co-sponsored a reform bill in 2011 designed to do just that: take politics out of the redistricting process. Defending his change of position, Lewis said, "In 2011, I believed the idea of a non-partisan staff that would propose something the
Assembly would vote up or down had a shot to materialize. I will tell you, as I have engaged in this, I have realized that we all have political biases, instincts, and preferences that are inherent to who we are as individuals."

Asked if he thinks there's less chance for reform now than when he sponsored a reform bill five years ago, Lewis said, "Yes. Yes. I think it is less likely because I do not believe you can take partisanship out of a purely political thing."

Lewis also dismissed the Iowa model as one that should be followed by North Carolina.

"The arguments put forward about why Iowa is a good idea, they say, "One, you get more participation. If you look, roughly the same number of seats were unopposed in Iowa as were unopposed here. They say the commission works but there are still lawsuits that are filed. The bottom line is anyone that feels like their side is losing is going to turn to the courts. And it's frustrating to say we're going to take politics out of something that's inherently political because that's what it is."

We talked to Lewis about whether Republicans will be able to work with new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Watch Lewis' response in the video below.

WATCH: NC House Rep. David Lewis on Gov. Roy Cooper
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NC House Rep. David Lewis on Gov. Roy Cooper.

Some of the procedural tasks included selecting leaders and staffers.

The House elected Rep. Tim Moore of Cleveland County to a second two-year term as speaker, while the Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham, is entering his fourth term at the post. Each was the nominee of their respective Republican caucus and had no announced opposition.

"My words cannot express the gratitude and appreciation I feel to have your support today," Moore said. "I am honored to serve as your Speaker."

Berger issued similar sentiments.

"Thank you to my colleagues for once again putting your confidence and trust in me to serve as President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate," Berger said. "I am humbled and honored, and I look forward to working alongside you to continue strengthening our state."

The North Carolina Democratic Party called on Moore and Berger to work with Gov. Roy Cooper.

"North Carolina voters sent a clear message in last November's elections: they're tired of the divisive social policies and partisan power grabs being supported by Republican leaders in Raleigh," said NCDP Chairwoman Patsy Keever. "As the General Assembly returns to session, I call on Representative Moore and Senator Berger to heed that message and work with Governor Cooper to create a fairer tax code, strengthen public education and expand health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians."

Berger pointed out the growth the state has seen in recent years.

"Just six short years ago, our state faced a double-digit unemployment rate - the fifth highest in the entire country," he said. "Now, due in large part to difficult decisions made by the legislature, our unemployment rate has fallen by half, and North Carolina is creating jobs faster than the rest of the United States.

"Now, as a result of our nationally-recognized tax cuts and tax reform, North Carolina businesses and citizens pay billions of dollars less in taxes," Berger added. "Our state now boasts the best tax climate in the region and the 11th best nationally - but there is still more work to do."

House Majority Leader John Bell was sworn in for a third term.

"I'm very humbled by the support of the voters in Lenoir, Wayne, Craven, and Greene Counties for electing me to serve as their Representative," Bell said. "I look forward to continuing to serve them to ensure our state is a great place to live, work, and play."

House members chose James White to succeed Denise Weeks as principal clerk.

Weeks has been principal clerk since 1993 and worked for nearly 40 years in the chamber. White has worked under Weeks since 2012.

The House on Wednesday also elected Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy to serve as speaker pro tempore, which is the chamber's No. 2 leader. She succeeds Paul Stam of Apex, who didn't seek re-election to the House. The deputy Senate leader will again be Louis Pate of Mount Olive. Senators re-elected Sara Lang as their principal clerk.

The legislature next reconvenes Jan. 25.

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