Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dirty Dems play race politics

That's what I think I'm going to suggest as the headline for my article on the Pender County commissioners' meeting. I've seen some ugly politics in my time, but last night's Pender County Board of Commissioners meeting probably takes the cake. As a pastor and reporter, I don't generally weigh in on local political issues much, except as they touch on morals and good sense. I'm a registered independent, and in the last election, I voted a split ticket based on the position and the candidate. But as an individual opposed to deception, self-serving politics at the cost of the public, and any form of racism, I found what was done by local Democrats last night abhorrent.

A little background.

Pender County currently elects its commissioners with at-large elections, which means that every person in the county votes for every commissioner; the commissioners are simply required to live in the district they will represent. There are currently three Democrat commissioners and two Republicans. The chairman of the board is a Democrat.

A strong group of minorities in Pender County has been pushing for a redistricting for quite some time, decades, in fact. Pender County has had minority commissioners, but it has been several years since one was elected. This group would like to change things so that each commissioner is elected solely by the people in his or her own district, and they would like to redistrict so that at least one district is created in which a minority composes the majority of voters, so they have a better chance of getting a minority representative on the board of commissioners.

Now, the last part of that shouldn't be that hard. People all over the county have been calling for redistricting because of the drastic population growth and shift; areas on the east side of the county are now under-represented, considering their population. If we redistrict, it's not hard at all to draw a district on the western side that would have a slight majority of African-Americans. I think every commissioner has said that they would be willing to seriously consider this, if they could see some research on the future districts, the legalities, ect.

This group of minorities came before the new board of commissioners in December, at their first meeting after the election and asked them to consider redistricting. The commissioners agreed to put it on the agenda for their retreat, when they'll have plenty of time to look things over and consider possibilities.

But one Democratic commissioner got together with at least one minority leader (there were apparently other people involved, but I haven't been able to find out who they were yet), and they took a trip to Raleigh over Christmas. They met with the requisite people there and worked out a map with seven districts including a majority minority district. They say they think the map meets all the legal requirements for redistricting.

Here's the problem: they didn't tell anybody.

They did not put this issue on the agenda for last night's meeting. They did not notify the two Republicans on the board that it would be discussed. Remember that everyone thought this had been tabled for the retreat next month -- they had no reason to suspect any action would be taken on it at this meeting.

Oh, wait. They did tell some people. Yesterday morning, the calls went out through the Democratic party and the NAACP that this issue would likely be addressed at the meeting.

So when I showed up, the place was practically full, largely with minorities. Since several controversial issues were on the agenda, I didn't know what they were there for. When the time came for public remarks or items from the commissioners, representatives of this group got up and asked the commissioners if they'd done anything with redistricting. And the commissioner that went to Raleigh got up and handed out copies of a map he said he got just that afternoon. It had the seven districts and the majority minority district. And before anyone really had time to examine or discuss it, he read a resolution requesting the state legislature to enact that redistricting plan and made a motion that it be passed. A fellow Democrat jumped in to second it (adding that he hadn't seen the map until just then either), under the condition that the legislature had permission to make any minor adjustments necessary to pass it without it needing to come back to the county level.

This left the two Republican commissioners sitting there with their mouths open. They had never seen the map before. They were being asked to vote on changing the entire commissioners' electoral system for the entire county and a map of the new districts without any opportunity to discuss or examine it. One pointed out that there are over 47,000 people in the county, but only the dozens in the room actually knew this enormous decision was being considered. He asked for 30 days to consider the plan. Any attempt to delay passage of the motion was met with outcry from the audience that these two commissioners were trying to keep them from getting fair representation.

The chairman, also a Democrat, called for a vote, and the measure passed 3-2.

The Republicans were forced into voting against a measure they might have supported if they'd had time to consider it, and they both said that. This was one of the most important issues the commissioners will vote on this year, possibly the most important, since it shapes the political landscape of the county for the foreseeable future, and they could not in good conscience vote in favor of it without a chance to look at it.

The Democrats, by concealing critical information from their fellow commissioners, managed to cast them as anti-minority. They sacrificed meaningful discussion on a crucial issue in order to make their opponents look bad -- on a board that's supposed to be (according to even the Dems in their campaign speeches) basically non-partisan and committed to the good of the whole county.

Huge issues were not addressed. For instance, if you only vote on one commissioner, but there's a board of seven, when an issue in your district comes up, you have no say in six of the people that will be voting on it. Does that really improve anyone's representation?

Each commissioner would also only be answerable to the people who voted for them -- one district of the county. This could easily create incentive for the kind of pork-barrel politics we see on the national level. Is that really good for the county as a whole? Maybe. But it should be discussed, in a forum that the whole county is aware of, not snuck in without being put on the agenda.

And for the minorities, are they really helped by being given a single district in which they are the majority? This means that if they act in a unified manner, they can put one commissioner on the board that represents their views. But if those views are really so different from the rest of the county (I'm being charitable here by assuming they want someone on the board who reflects their viewpoints, not someone whose skin is a particular color -- remember, I loathe racism, whether it's whites voting for someone who is white just for their color, or blacks voting for someone just because of their color), are they benefited by only being able to vote for one of seven commissioners? Or would they be better off being 25% of two or three districts, effectively the swing votes in an election? Their one commissioner would be awfully easy for six others to outvote, even on matters that directly concern his constituents -- and there's nothing he can do about it. But two or three out of out of five that have a sizeable percentage of minorities in their districts -- they had better pay attention.

Again, maybe they're better off with major control over one commissioner than with a partial say in a few. But that should have been discussed, with more than just the proponents of the action present. And what the Democrats did prevented that.

This also prevented any discussion over the representation of the booming Hispanic population in the county. Although there weren't enough Hispanics in the area at the last census to justify a district, there very well may be by the next census -- will plans be put in place to create a district for any sizeable minority group in the county, or will this group get special treatment? Again, this should have been discussed.

As it happens, the commissioner who put this forward lives in the newly drawn majority minority district. I can't speculate on his real motives for this, or what he hopes to gain for himself, his party, or, as he claims, his constituents.

But I have no question that what he, the local Democratic party, and this group did was dishonet and underhanded. While redistricting along these lines may be a good action (no one has argued that it is bad -- no one knows enough to argue anything), it was unquestionably done in the wrong way.

Local Democrats and this group of minorities got their way. But they did so at the cost of any possible non-partisan unity on the board, at the cost of the trust of most of the people in the county, and at the cost of preventing the tens of thousands of people affected by the action from having any say about it. That might be good politics. But it sure ain't right.


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