Speaker stresses need for redistricting reform

Feb. 05, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Democracy in North Carolina isn't as representative as it should or could be, according to one expert who spoke in Sanford Monday, who suggested that the legislative redistricting process is to blame.

Redistricting is when the General Assembly decides which areas will be represented by which districts in the U.S. and N.C. House of Representatives and the N.C. Senate. Also known by the term gerrymandering, the practice is generally used by political parties to strengthen their position.

Bob Phillips, executive director of the statewide chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan lobbying group, is trying to stop that. Backed by video endorsements from representatives of both major political parties, as well as decorated legal experts, Phillips pitched his plea for reform at the monthly meeting of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce's Public Policy Committee.

Redistricting, which last happened in 2010, is done after the U.S. Census is tallied every 10 years. Most states leave it up to their legislators, but Phillips is crusading to get North Carolina — which he said has faced more redistricting-related lawsuits than any other state — to take it out of the hands of elected officials in order to make political races more fair and competitive, which he said would increase productivity and accountability.

"In North Carolina, we have a system in place that actually stifles competition and restricts people from running," he said. "... I worry about the loss of leadership this state is suffering right now because of this system."

In the 2012 elections, he noted, 42 percent of the seats in the N.C. General Assembly weren't even contested. Only one race for the U.S. House of Representatives was within five points, the cutoff to be considered competitive, and only two races for the N.C. Senate and nine for the N.C. House were competitive — even though the state was split nearly 50-50 in the presidential election.

But lest anyone accuse Phillips — a former aide to then-Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, a Democrat and Sanford native — of simply being sore that Republicans finally got to command the process that Democrats had controlled since Reconstruction ended, he said the recent GOP victories have actually been a Godsend. He said he's been trying for years to institute reform but Democrats uniformly opposed him until 2010.

"The Democrats, as I say, have found religion now," he said. "And enough Republicans have institutional memories of how it used to be. We have a moment here."

He has finally found bipartisan support from policy wonks and think tanks and is asking people of all political persuasions to contact their legislators and suggest they support reform as well, since any reform would have to be passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by the governor.

"(Chris Fitzsimon) and John Hood don't agree on anything," Phillips said, referring to the founder and executive director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch (Fitzsimon) and the president and chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation (Hood). "But they agree on this."