North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams, an African-American who commands what’s been called the most racially gerrymandered U.S. House of Representatives district in the nation, looked a few days ago like an incumbent with little to worry about in this year’s election.
But Adams may well have drawn the shortest straw in a proposed statewide redistricting plan released Wednesday, which suddenly threw her Democratic re-election prospects into potential political peril.
It would shift the 12th Congressional District, which now snakes along the Interstate 85 corridor from Charlotte to Greensboro, to a district almost wholly focused in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. That’s 90 miles from her Greensboro home and voter stronghold – a change that appeared likely to draw at least two experienced Charlotte politicians into her primary election race in a district expected to stay in Democrats’ hands.
The remap was drafted by North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature after a federal court panel ruled that Adams’ district and another to the east were unconstitutionally packed with minority voters. It quickly won approval from a joint House-Senate committee and headed for final legislative approval, though court rulings are pending on whether such major changes will apply to this year’s elections.
“I was disappointed that the committee favored supporting partisan gerrymandering,” Adams said in a phone interview Thursday, asserting that the boundaries of her new Charlotte district are defined by the race of voters, just as is her previous district. “Had they not gerrymandered in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Beyond that, Adams was tight-lipped, saying that “these are just proposals that are on the table” and that no decisions are final.
Would she still seek re-election if the remap goes forward, especially amid saber rattling about possible Democratic candidacies in the reshaped district from state Rep. Rodney Moore and former state Sen. Malcolm Graham, who live in Charlotte and are better acquainted with its voters? While House candidates need only live in the same state where they seek election – not necessarily the same congressional district – might Adams move her residence to Charlotte or take an apartment there?
“I’m going to let the process play out,” Adams said. “Today, I’ve been doing my work that’s before me as a congresswoman for the 12th District.”
A three-judge federal court panel still could reject the remap. Or Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court, who is weighing appeals seeking to delay the process, could issue a “stay” that would block the redistricting from going forward until after next fall’s elections.
Adams is hardly the only North Carolina House candidate who was thrown into a tizzy by the proposed remap.
“It is going to be a chaotic next couple of months, if these maps go through, simply because of a lot of outside dominoes that are going to fall,” and not just for the candidates, said J. Michael Bitzer, political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. “For the voters, if the map is approved and goes into effect, they may go to bed one night with one member of Congress representing them. They’ll wake up the next morning with a whole new cast of characters.”
Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who is seeking a third term, would lose conservative voters at the northern end of Charlotte and face acquainting himself with a 160-mile-long district, stretching from Charlotte’s Republican-dominated southern suburbs through seven more counties to the east.
Pittenger voiced frustration over plans to jumble congressional districts so late in the election process, although the legislature also was moving to delay the March 15 primary election until June if the remap takes effect.
“Why didn’t they do this last fall?” he asked in a phone interview. “We’ve already spent money on the campaign. We’ve already printed brochures. We’re on TV in areas last month that don’t matter. It’s very imprudent. People have already voted. Their (absentee) ballots are not going to count.”
Pittenger said, however, that he could adjust to his new 9th District that would comprise mostly rural counties. He noted that he ran for lieutenant governor in 2008 and enjoyed meeting rural residents.
“You need to realize when all the county fairs are, and the Lincoln-Reagan dinners,” he said.
Pittenger’s Republican primary opponent, former CIA employee George Rouco, also is wringing his hands over the late redistricting changes. Rouco, who lives in Mooresville, north of Charlotte, nearly a county away from the proposed new district, said his campaign has been at a standstill the past two weeks because “you don’t know if your voter pool has changed.”
He said the primary elections should be delayed until May even if the new districts are set aside until next year. With all the legal commotion, he said, “they’ve taken away 3 1/2 weeks from challengers who don’t have the brand, who don’t have the advantage an incumbent has.”
If the Republican redistricting plan goes forward, Bitzer said, Adams could face an especially tough primary election race. Her 2014 primary triumph was aided when half a dozen rivals divided the Charlotte vote while she captured solid support from voters in Greensboro and Winston-Salem near her home.
While 51 percent of registered voters are Democrats in the proposed new 12th District, she would be a 90-minute drive from her home.
“The political perception is, if you don’t live in my district, how do you know what the issues are for this group of constituents?” Bitzer said. “That’s a powerful political argument. “
State Rep. Rodney Moore, a Mecklenburg Democrat, said he was “90 percent” sure he’d challenge Adams if the federal court approved the new districts. The last 10 percent, he said, “is not that far.”
Moore said he would have a “decided advantage” in the race because of his legislative experience and familiarity with voters.
Former state Sen. Malcolm Graham, who finished second to Adams in the 2014 primary, also said he would have to take a “hard look” at running for the seat a second time if the new districts were upheld.
“We won Mecklenburg County pretty heavily,” he said. “I’ve been working on the behalf of the community the last 30 years.”
“I think people in Charlotte are very familiar with me,” he said.
Even if the panel approves the new map, Graham said, there are some personal matters he would have to weigh before launching another campaign.
First, he’d have to talk it over with his wife. Second, he’d have to keep working to overcome a family tragedy.
His sister, Cynthia Hurd, 54, was killed last summer when Dylann Roof opened fire on a prayer meeting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Malcolm Graham is a former state representative. He is a former state senator. It gave the wrong distance from U.S. Rep. Alma Adams’ home to what would be her new district. It would be a 90-minute drive for her. It also wrongly reported state Rep. Rodney Moore as saying he would have a “decided advantage” over Adams in a campaign. Moore was not referring to Adams specifically.
Jonathan McFadden: @JmcfaddenObsGov