When a federal judge ruled last week against a state law that reconfigured and redistricted the Greensboro City Council, it was celebrated in the Gate City. But the larger implications of the ruling weren’t widely discussed.
But Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who spearheaded the legal and popular resistance to the law, said the ruling was more than just a victory for Greensboro. It was more than a win for one of the state’s most liberal cities in a two year struggle against the conservative North Carolina General Assembly.
“I think it was a very important decision for the state of North Carolina,” Vaughan said this week. “It reaffirmed the ability of cities to determine their form of government. Importantly, it offers the citizens the ability to have a referendum, to have a voice in what their government looks like. That’s something they were trying to do away with here – and if it had been successful, it’s something a number of other towns and cities would have seen.”
The law, passed in 2015, did away with at-large council seats in favor of eight council districts and a mayor who is elected by the entire city. It also lengthened council terms from two years to four, limited the mayor’s vote to breaking ties and dramatically changed the council’s district boundaries.
Given Greensboro’s political makeup, all those changes would have favored Republicans.
The Greensboro City Council is nonpartisan. But with 55 percent of the city’s voters registered as Democrats and just 20 percent as Republicans, the council is often dominated by Democrats and moderate Republicans.
“No matter what they did with the maps, they couldn’t really engineer something that would guarantee a Republican majority in Greensboro,” Vaughan said. “So they did what they could to reduce the influence of Democrats who were elected by the whole city and make it easier for conservative candidates.”
Michael Bitzer, professor of political science and history at Catawba College, followed the redistricting struggle closely. This week he said Judge Catherine Eagles’ ruling didn’t come as a surprise.
“The biggest issue that the court has is the blatant disparity in the districts,” Bitzer said. “There was a clear attempt to stack districts in a way that would favor Republicans over Democrats and diffuse influence in certain areas.”
Bitzer said the law followed a pattern that has been apparent since Republicans became the majority in Raleigh.
“It’s certainly part of a pattern of trying to exercise as much influence as they can over local government from Raleigh,” Bitzer said. “Part of that is that so many metropolitan areas have come to so favor Democrats that Republicans either have to change their philosophy – which they are not going to do – or they have to change the structure of elections and government.”
The Greensboro redistricting law, which began as Senate Bill 36, was instigated by state Senator Trudy Wade, a Republican with a complicated political history in Greensboro.
Wade began her political career as a Democrat and mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for a seat on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. In 1997 she became a Republican and was elected to one of the board’s at-large seats in 2000. Wade narrowly lost her seat to Democrat John Parks in 2004. She contested the election, keeping the seat for another 18 months as she appealed her case all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The court ultimately dismissed Wade’s case – a big blow to Wade and to the local Republican Party.
A year later, in 2007, Wade won the District 5 seat on the Greensboro City Council, where she served until her election to the state Senate in 2012.
Wade was a strong presence on the council and was instrumental in crafting the 2011 council district maps that she would later argue against as she tried to reshape the council from Raleigh. One of the reasons for the seeming about-face: Wade’s frustration with at-large representation in the largely liberal city.
In Wade’s last full term as a council member a rare Republican majority reigned — including a Republican mayor, elected at-large.
But one of the most divisive issues of that term — the controversial question of whether to reopen the White Street Landfill in East Greensboro to household garbage — split the council.
Residents of largely black East Greensboro rallied to keep the landfill closed to household waste while Wade led a coalition of conservative council members, including then-Mayor Bill Knight and council members Mary Rakestraw and Danny Thompson, in an effort to reopen it.
Republican Robbie Perkins and Vaughan, who was a Republican at the time, joined with Democratic council members Jim Kee and T. Dianne Bellamy-Small to oppose the landfill’s reopening.
Conservatives blamed the loss on Perkins and Vaughan, who as at-large representatives, needed votes from East Greensboro and political moderates across the city.
“When you’re elected at large you have to compromise, you have to work with other people and you have to think about the good of the entire city, not just your district,” Vaughan said at the time. “I think it means you work together with your fellow council members to come to solutions that are best for everyone, so I don’t like that we’re seeing it attacked now.”
In the election that followed the landfill controversy, Knight and Thompson — both of whom were elected at large — lost their seats. Rakestraw, whose district was not as solidly conservative as Wade’s, was also ousted by voters. With solid support from East Greensboro – and a bipartisan appeal – Perkins was elected mayor.
Changes to the council made by the redistricting law would have made it much easier to reopen the landfill without direct political consequences. But that’s just one example.
The changes would have done away with a number of the political hurdles that frustrated Wade as a conservative in a largely liberal city, especially the power of at-large representatives and their need to be moderate and compromise.
More candidates with conservative views could run for a council seat in districts where they would not face any electoral pressure from parts of the city outside those districts.
The law would have made Greensboro the only city in the state that could not make changes to its form of government or its district lines through a referendum vote.
It would also have stripped Vaughan, an old political foil, of influence and power now that she was serving as mayor.
The law was seen as so poorly reasoned and nakedly political that some of the state’s most prominent Republicans and Democrats were unanimous in their condemnation of it.
Then-governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, disparaged it as “a bad law and a shameful process” that no true conservative, with their reverence for local governance, should have supported.
“It breaks the spirit of why we have local bills,” Local bills should come from local areas. And this bill wasn’t a Greensboro bill. It was a Raleigh bill.”
McCrory was against overreach from Raleigh when he was the mayor of Charlotte and the state government was controlled by Democrats.
“I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say that, sadly, now I have to say the same thing of my party,” he said in the wake of the redistricting law’s passage.
Saying he would support a lawsuit to fight the redistricting, McCrory described the law as the kind of thing that “causes people not to trust their government.”
Roy Cooper, then North Carolina’s Attorney General, refused to defend the law in court. Though McCrory would later disparage those sorts of refusals when Cooper successfully ran against him for governor, the two political rivals were on the same page on the Greensboro redistricting.
N.C. Representatives Jon Hardister and John Blust, both Republicans, also fought against the law – though Hardister would later help reconfigure the Greensboro plan and vote first for and then against the revised bill.
It was a bruising intra-party fight, especially for the young and relatively politically inexperienced Hardister. At the time he described himself as pulled between his conscience, his constituents and his political party.
“The legislative process is imperfect,” Hardister said in the wake of the bill’s passage. “You go into it knowing that, and you really have to weigh the merits of a bill against the process. Sometimes the process is so bad, you can’t support a bill no matter what the merits are. In the end, that’s where I was with this.”
Standing against Wade’s initial bill, compromising to support a revised plan, ultimately voting against the result and criticizing the process doesn’t seem to have hurt Hardister politically. He went on to be re-elected to his seat and become House majority whip.
Now that Raleigh’s redistricting plan for Greensboro has been beaten back by a federal court, Vaughan said she’s heard from municipal leaders from across the state who are breathing a sigh of relief.
“They’ve been very pleased to hear the decision,” Vaughan said. “A lot of municipalities feel like maybe they’re next. And now, at least, the judiciary has gone on record saying you can’t just draw these lines because you want to — it was a victory against gerrymandering.”
Vaughan said there’s a chance the General Assembly will simply drop another map, another bill, to accomplish the same thing. There are already whispers that may be in the works.
“My hope would be that we won’t see that,” Vaughan said. “I don’t really know if the NCGA has the appetite to go through this again with the city of Greensboro.”
“The truth is they have their own gerrymandering issues to deal with,” Vaughan said. “They’ve been re-elected under maps that were found to be unconstitutional. So they really should be drawing their own maps at this point.”