Redistricting hearings part of legislature's backup plan

DURHAM (WTVD) -- The General Assembly may have to approve a new map for North Carolina's congressional districts by the end of the week. So, lawmakers are taking public comments following a recent federal court ruling striking down some of the boundaries.

A redistricting committee held a statewide public hearings Monday with multiple state legislators and other public officials at six different sites from Asheville to Wilmington. Bad weather forced the cancellation of a seventh hearing in Greensboro.

It comes after a three-judge panel called the 1st and 12th Districts illegal racial gerrymanders and demanded a conforming plan by Friday.

Republican lawmakers have said those districts are legal and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block that ruling and allow House primary elections March 15 under current boundaries.

The hearings are part of a backup plan should the Supreme Court refuse. That plan would reconvene the full legislature Thursday.

At Monday's hearing, the inclement weather played a big role in hearing, with many people who signed up to speak showing up extremely late or not at all. Republican Chair Sen. Bob Rucho, who was moderating from Raleigh, started out by extending sign up from 10 to 11 a.m.

Click here for more on the hearing

Once the hearing got underway, Rucho explained legislators were not there to answer any questions, and speakers would get a 5-minute time frame each. He also promised the legislature would exhaust "all avenues of legal appeal."

"The General Assembly is actively seeking a stay in order to avoid the chaos and costliness associated with an 11th-hour delay of an election already underway," he said. "The maps are fair, legal, and constitutional as drawn."

Four of the first five speakers were in favor of keeping the lines in place and the maps as is for the March 15 primary.

Then, an unidentified woman at a satellite location expressed concern about the short notice of the hearing and went on to scold legislators for having the hearing.

"These Congressional districts have been redrawn through racial lines. It's a form of gerrymandering," she said. "If you look at the map, it's drawn oddly shaped. Groups of blacks are packed into one district and make it so that other races, Caucasians ... let's not forget, it's always a good time to do what's right. In terms of the elections going on right now. In terms of the absentee ballots, sometimes we have to step back. Even though voting has already started. It would behoove us to do what's right and, if necessary, start this election process over again."

Rep. Paul Stam, who was moderating at the woman's location, thanked the woman and, with no apparent sense of irony after the speaker had just complained about the weather making it difficult for public comment, announced that another lawmaker had just joined their meeting and had seen nine accidents along the way.

Adding to the irony, Sen. Bob Rucho then called for three more speakers who signed up, but were not in attendance.

Brian Fitzsimmons was, and as it turned out, Fitzsimmons is chair of the Wake County Democratic Party.

"I was interested to hear you talk about chaos and costliness," he addressed Rucho. "This is what you did. This is what happened. This chaos and costliness falls directly on this body. It's of your own doing. You tried to fix a problem that did not exist."

The maps in question were redrawn in 2011 by the Republican legislature (Rucho led that charge for the Senate). Two weeks ago, a federal district court ordered the state - Fitzsimmons was referring to - draw new lines for Congressional districts 1 and 12 before the primaries.

"This plan does nothing more than segregate African American voters," Fitzsimmons continued.

He noted that gerrymandered lines go back decades.

"It was wrong when Democrats did it and it's wrong when Republicans do it," Fitzsimmons said. "I urge you to look at this with the right set of glasses. Do the right thing. Draw these districts the way they should have been drawn in the first place."

Politely, in much the same manner as he approached the others, Rucho thanked Fitzsimmons.

The next speaker picked up where Fitzsimmons left off.

"The fact that some ballots have been sent and submitted does not outweigh constitutional rights," the unidentified speaker said.

Then, as that person wrapped up and the crowd cheered, the moderator raised his voice to a near yell and barked, "I have already said there will be no shout-outs or demonstrations!"

He continued to scold the crowd, but Senator Rucho took over the audio feed and moved the meeting to the next community college and Thomas Thompson, from Woodson.

"The North Carolina General Assembly was constituted to represent the people," he began. "Elections have consequences and so do district court rulings. You need to comply with this ruling and quit pretending it doesn't exist. You have created chaos in how you drew these lines."

A Democrat from Halifax County took the microphone and returned to the weather and Stam's earlier comment about those nine accidents slowing a legislator down.

"How dare you endanger our lives on these icy roads and then make light of it?" the speaker began. "If you were truly concerned, you would have delayed the meeting so more people could attend. You've known about the need for a meeting like this for a week now and yet we find out Sunday about a meeting on Monday?"

The speaker then injected this: "As we signed in today, we were asked what was our race. And I wonder if that will have some impact on how our comments are seen."

"What you are doing is not legislative leadership," he continued, "Many of us spoke against these maps when they were drawn in the first place making comments that your were cramming African American voters into one spot. Stop blaming the Justice Department, you drew these maps. You think we have nothing better to do than to wait for other people in other districts talk? We have to get home before the rains freeze on the roads again. Holding hearings like this is ridiculous, it's wrong. It's a mess, you made it, clean it up."

Rucho, again, replied politely, but sounded a little tired. "Thank you."

During the criticism, Rucho and his fellow Republicans who drew the maps got some reprieve from conservatives at the hearing's various satellite locations.

Supporters of the maps largely pointed to the fact they were upheld by the Justice Department after being passed by the legislature in 2011, and the chaos they say would come from redraw the maps, as the state is currently required to do.
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