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The far-right North Carolina General Assembly loves gerrymandering and voter suppression. Since taking power in 2011, Republican lawmakers embarked rampantly on both, leading to a slew of court battles. Voting restrictions targeted at keeping out Black voters "with almost surgical precision"? They're a favorite. Legislative districts created to reduce Black voting power and elect as many Republicans as possible? The GOP government has passed a plethora.
But while these battles have usually focused on federal and state elections, the legislature's grasp has also extended to the local level with attempts to gerrymander local elections in Wake County and Greensboro in 2015, and more recently, the city of Asheville. A bill signed into law last summer delayed Asheville's elections by a year (elections for three Council seats would normally take place in 2019) and carved up all but one Council seat into five districts, clearly drawn to break up Black voting power.
The Asheville case raises the disturbing possibility of a devil's bargain between conservatives and establishment liberals.
In the cases of Wake County and Greensboro, both local governments fought back swiftly — and won. These new state laws that imposed redistricting were overturned in federal court as judges found that they clearly ran afoul of equal protection and prohibitions on racial gerrymanders. But Asheville's City Council, despite initially opposing the 2018 redistricting law, has stayed largely silent in the months since its passage. Earlier this year, after public outcry forced a response, Asheville's mayor declared they were still on the fence about fighting the gerrymander at all and wouldn't fight the election delay, giving her and the city's six Council members another year in office that voters never approved.
The Asheville case is an unusual one, but it could have ramifications throughout the South. In the General Assembly, a key establishment Democrat actually joined with the GOP to carry out their gerrymander. Recent elections in Asheville have brought to the forefront issues of gentrification and segregation that belie an ostensibly "progressive" status quo. The Asheville case raises the disturbing possibility of a devil's bargain between conservatives and establishment liberals, both fearful of rising Black voting power and the social justice movements threatening to shake them from their comfortable perch.
Carving up a city
Conservative legislators had bandied about the idea of gerrymandering Asheville for years, but the effort really gained momentum after the 2015 local elections. That year, three well-funded and experienced right-wing candidates failed to even make it out of the primary. That November, Keith Young, a Black court clerk, won the highest vote tally of any Council candidate, heralding the end of an all-white Council.
Despite its progressive veneer, Asheville is one of the most highly segregated cities in North Carolina and sharply divided along class lines as well. Statistics compiled by the State of Black Asheville project show Black household wealth nearly collapsed during the tourism "boom" that has marked the past decade. Those disparities, many stemming from a particularly brutal history of redlining, extend to housing, labor, business ownership, and every other field measured for the project. Racial disparities in traffic stops/searches and school discipline are among the worst in the state.
Asheville is one of the fastest gentrifying and least affordable cities in the country, which has led to widespread anger with the political status quo. Skyrocketing housing costs have pushed many locals into increasingly desperate circumstances, a situation exacerbated by the explosion of short term rentals through companies like Airbnb that have taken up three percent of the city's housing stock (the highest percentage in the nation) and worsened an already-dire housing crisis.
Following the 2015 election, public pressure on these issues led to the city government, somewhat grudgingly, exerting more power over local development (especially to control an unpopular profusion of hotels), making some moves to curb short term rentals, and starting long-overdue racial equity efforts.
The state legislature's response to the 2015 Council election was swift and harsh. The next year, then-state Sen. Tom Apodaca, whose district included a slice of South Asheville, tried to rush through a bill carving Asheville into six electoral districts. They were clearly drawn to divide up the Black vote, cutting through neighborhoods and maximizing the chances of voters electing conservative Democrats or even an occasional Republican, despite city politics increasingly trending against those factions.
Asheville has what's known as an "at-large" system, meaning that every city voter can vote for all positions that are up for election. Historically, at-large systems have been used to maintain white electoral power, while district systems have sometimes served to increase Black and Latinx representation. But the nuances of local geography can flip that script.
In Asheville, Black neighborhoods such as Burton Street, Shiloh, and Southside are located in many different parts of the city. If those voters feel that certain candidates will represent their needs and they organize and vote accordingly, under the at-large system they can have a major impact on every seat up for election and stand a much better chance of winning at least some of those seats. Indeed, this happened in 2015 (and again in 2017). The leftward momentum of recent years was partly enabled by Asheville's at-large system. Carving the city into districts would reduce that impact.
Miraculously, Apodaca's bill failed in the state House, partly due to GOP infighting over procedure. But his successor, Sen. Chuck Edwards, brought back a similar bill the next year. This time it technically required the city to draw its own district boundaries for all six Council seats, but set criteria so rigid they would basically reproduce Apodaca's map.
The leftward momentum of recent years was partly enabled by Asheville's at-large system. Carving the city into districts would reduce that impact.
To marshal public opposition and increase their chances in a future legal battle, the Council refused to draw the maps and instead put Edwards' measure to a referendum in 2017. The results were overwhelming: 75 percent of city voters rejected the plan to gerrymander their local elections.
That year also saw a major shift in local elections. Voter turnout surged to its highest level in over a decade, and issues of the city's de facto segregation, police misconduct, and the harm caused by gentrification were raised more than ever before. For the first time since 2005, a sitting Council member (Cecil Bothwell, who had been particularly vocal in supporting Airbnb landlords) failed to make it out of the primary. The city's vice mayor, one of its more conservative figures, managed to hold her seat, but just barely. Candidates were openly calling for the removal of major city officials like the manager and attorney, and several dubbed themselves socialists. That year also saw the election of Sheneika Smith, a longtime racial justice activist. The major fights in city politics had clearly shifted to a battle between centrists and more left-leaning voters.
Going into the 2015 elections, Asheville had an all-white Council. By the end of 2017 there were two black Council members at the dais, the most in over three decades. And public pressure wasn't letting up. The next year saw the Council pass one of the strictest short term rental bans in the country, adopt NAACP-backed policing reforms, expand the city's equity office and start rejecting hotels. A budget expanding policing downtown passed, but only by a single vote.
When video emerged showing a white Asheville police officer brutally beating a Black man, claiming he was jaywalking, video that city officials had kept buried during the 2017 elections, the longtime city manager was fired. The resignations of the far-right city attorney and the widely-criticized police chief followed later that year. While enforcing some of the new reforms proved a challenge and much of the status quo remained intact, the political terrain had clearly shifted.
Then Sen. Edwards introduced another gerrymandering bill. This time, with some key Democratic support.
In 2018, Edwards rolled out his latest gerrymandering proposal. This one would keep the mayor and one Council member elected at-large, but split the five other seats up into districts, again clearly drawn to break up Black voting power.
Apodaca and Edwards' previous attempts had incurred universal Democratic opposition, especially from those representing areas in and around Asheville. At first, it looked like 2018 would be no exception: the bills would pass with Republican votes, Democrats would oppose, and the whole thing would head for a court battle.
But Democratic state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, whose district covers most of Asheville, cut a deal to support Edwards' bill if he added an amendment moving local elections to even-numbered years, which would extend the terms of current elected officials. Van Duyn reasoned that the bill was likely to pass anyway, and that voter turnout is higher in even-numbered years when midterms and presidential elections take place.
It quickly emerged that Council members were against measure (the mayor personally supported it, but called it "lipstick on a pig" given the bill's other mandates). While Democratic state house representatives from Asheville opposed the measure, it sailed through the state senate unanimously due to Van Duyn's reversal.
While her district is one of the more left-leaning in the state, Van Duyn is an establishment Democrat based in the wealthy Biltmore Forest area. She had sided with Republicans before to pass the transphobic HB142, which continued the injustices of the state's infamous "bathroom bill", and shut out trans women from speaking at an ensuing town hall.
The people of this city are committed fighting for their votes to matter.
Nonetheless, city officials remained opposed, publicly at least, to the gerrymandering plan. Young and Smith were particularly critical, observing the damage the plan would do to Black voting rights.
But despite their rhetorical opposition and the promising precedents set by Wake County and Greensboro, no lawsuit materialized. City officials claimed they would study the matter. Then they stayed silent.
That silence lasted for months.
At the start of 2018, locals began using the open public comment period at the end of Council meetings to raise their concerns.
On January 22, after a barrage of criticism, the silence finally broke. Mayor Esther Manheimer said that the city was still considering its options and might put the new system to a referendum. She claimed the city's interim attorney would research the matter but that she saw no reason to challenge the election delay. Since then, public pressure has continued to mount, with speakers criticizing Council's reticence at almost every meeting.
Public pressure might still force a court challenge. If the city doesn't do so, a civil rights group could step in and sue on behalf of Asheville's voters. Either way, the people of this city are committed fighting for their votes to matter.
The precedent Asheville's case could set is concerning. In local governments around the South, grassroots organizers have used local elections to push movements for political change and racial justice. While these have drawn the ire of conservatives, they've made plenty of white liberals and centrists unhappy as well, because social justice movements make their political dominance far more precarious. Some of Asheville's centrists have even expressed public dismay that pressure has forced some moves on issues like policing and gentrification.
From Jackson, Mississippi to Athens, Georgia to Charlottesville, Virginia, movements for real change are growing in strength and winning local elections. The Asheville example of liberals and centrists throwing in their lots in with the far-right to rig local elections is a disturbing one. Will that spread? A lot depends on the fights going on right now in Asheville's City Hall. What happens in the mountains never stays here.