Down to the Wire for Asheville Districts Bill

Jun 27, 2017

A bill forcing districts on the city of Asheville needs several more votes before becoming law.  It's on the House schedule for Thursday, possibly the last day of session.  The bill is sponsored by Republican Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville.

Edwards' counterpart in the House, Chuck McGrady, introduced it.

“The question may be, ‘Why do we need this bill?’  And the reason is south Asheville residents have asked for help.  They feel detached, deprived, disenfranchised.”

McGrady says it’s easy to see why the city council has resisted change, because…

“They’re all sort of in one area while the city has expanded outward.”

McGrady and Edwards say they’re trying to give south Asheville residents a voice.  That was the stated goal of a similar bill introduced by former Hendersonville Republican Senator Tom Apodaca in the last session.  The house killed that bill, as Buncombe County Democrat John Ager recalled:

“Bucking the will of a powerful Senator on his last day in office.  My constituents rejoiced.  The first cousin of that bill is back before us today.”

But McGrady says this bill is different.

“And the big difference here is that this bill allows the city to draw its own districts.”

Indeed, the city would have the opportunity to draw six districts, although that job would be handled by an independent commission selected by the council, according to an amendment run by Democratic Representative Brian Turner.  Turner represents south Asheville.

“And while I know that my city council would work hard to create fair representation to the city, I do believe that there is an inherent conflict of interest for any city council to draw their own districts.”

The amendment had been agreed on by Turner and Edwards to win his support, and it passed.  But McGrady urged, and the House rejected, other Democratic amendments, two of which came from members from Asheville.  One from Representative Susan Fisher would have allowed for a voter referendum.

“To allow the process to be done by the people of the city rather than by those who take, what I view as a really unhealthy interest in the city of Asheville’s governance.  I think that anytime that you can give people a chance to decide, rather than being decided for them, I think it is to all of our advantage.”

Fisher took particular issue with the motivation of Senators Edwards, and Apodaca before him, saying here it is in the final days of session and of course there’s an Asheville bill being discussed. 

“The new Senator from Henderson County is going through what can only be labeled as a rite-of-passage, where one is required to bully Asheville to gain the respect of, and to prove oneself.”

Fisher argued the city is looking at the issue itself, even scheduling a referendum on the matter, and should be allowed time to work through it.  McGrady countered with his belief that the city was, in his words, “slow walking” the matter.  And Republican Representative Michael Speciale seemed equally unimpressed by their efforts.

“What’s on the ballot is going to be to the people saying ‘Do you want to do this?  Do you want to redistrict?’  And I believe it was made quite clear by this General Assembly that WE want them to redistrict, and we have the authority to tell them that.”

Speciale’s support of the bill was notable because he had helped to strike down Apodaca’s bill.   But he said there’s nothing fairer than letting the city draw the maps themselves, rather than introducing maps from Raleigh, as Apodaca’s bill had done.  Critics have argued the bill is just about electing Republicans.  South Asheville is considered a part of town most likely to elect a conservative.  Edwards has publicly stayed away from partisan arguments, saying it’s about regional choice.  But during debate, at least one Republican seemed to indicate HIS support had something to do with party label, Rep. Scott Stone of Mecklenburg County.    

Stone:  “Currently there are six city council districts and the mayor, all at-large.  There are six Democrats on city council, plus the mayor, and zero Republicans.  Based on voter demographics, it is almost impossible for a Republican to win.”

Stone continued.

“All it does is allow for at least one opposing voice to have a fighting chance to represent the people who currently have no voice on the city council.”

It passed by a vote of 67-49.  The amended bill still needs another vote before it returns to the Senate for concurrence.