The last bill former Hendersonville Republican Tom Apodaca put forth before he retired would have split Asheville into districts for the purpose of electing city council members. It was opposed by every other lawmaker representing the city, as well as the mayor and entire city council. In a stinging defeat for the longtime senator, it failed in its final vote in the House. Now his successor, Republican Senator Chuck Edwards, is trying again. Edwards declined requests from BPR to talk about the bill, saying in an e-mailed response he’d talk “perhaps after the bill is passed.” But WUNC capitol reporter Jeff Tiberii caught up with Edwards on the Senate floor.
Sen. Chuck Edwards: “I’ve had so many folks come to me since my election and say they just don’t feel they are represented in Asheville because of how it’s grown, how it’s become so diverse… economically, culturally..”
Edwards’ districts includes a small portion of south Asheville, an area that hasn’t been represented on the city council in a number of years.
Edwards: “Districts are clearly the best way when you look all across North Carolina in our electoral system today, to make sure that folks that live in every area have some sort of representation.”
The bill faces pretty much the same legislature that voted down Apodaca’s measure so recently, when a number of Republicans joined Democratic resistance to the idea.
Edwards: “The difference with my bill is I’m simply saying that I believe that Asheville should be in six districts. The city will draw those districts. I don’t have any intention to introduce legislation that would identify the districts. There should just be six.”
The bill states the city of Asheville will create districts by November 1st. However, if the city doesn’t, the district map would be mandated by the law. Since Apodaca’s bill failed, Asheville councilmembers have made an effort to poll residents about their opinions on the matter. The polling results aren’t complete. In an e-mail, Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer says since the discussion has surfaced, council has received several e-mails about districts, most opposed to the legislation, with a handful in support. In an interview earlier this month, Manheimer said she’s interested in what the people want, and if there is support for districts, it’s incumbent on the city to work with Edwards.
Esther Manheimer: “But if there is not, we’re going to have to do what we’ve been doing, which is oppose legislation that negatively affects us, and then make the decision how far we take that opposition.”
The bill’s movement since being introduced is confusing. First it was referred to the Senate rules committee, which is often a place where legislation goes to die, according to Jeff Tiberii.
“All the bills that go into House rules, one in ten come out, and in the Senate, it’s less than that. Is this one of those? I don’t know. Senator Edwards seemed confident when I talked to him last week.”
The bill was then referred to an elections committee, but the legislative website says that if favorable, the bill would be sent back to rules. Tiberii says the bill is significant in the larger context of the state.
“Thinking about what’s happening in Asheville, I think about what happened with Greensboro city council districts within the last couple of years, Wake County commissioner districts within the last couple of years. There has been a push by Republican state legislators, to change some of the boundaries to try to benefit conservative leaning lawmakers. And one of the things that we have seen is moving away from at-large seats to district seats.”
The southern portion of Asheville is seen as more likely to elect a Republican in the deeply blue city. Again, Senator Edwards.
Edwards: “I reject the notion that this is about power. To the contrary, this is about putting the power in the people’s hands, and there are so many people in Asheville that feel they don’t have a voice. They came to me and asked if I could work on their behalf to help them get a voice.”
Edwards is hoping his bill hits the April 22nd crossover deadline, when most bills need to have passed one chamber to be considered during session, though there are always legislative ways around that deadline. For BPR News, I’m Jeremy Loeb.