Gerrymandered Districts May Limit Opportunities

Posted March 31, 2008 at 6:34pm

All eyes will be on Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on May 6, when North Carolina primary voters are expected to crowd local polling places for the state’s 2008 primaries.

[IMGCAP(1)]But presidential fanfare aside, a handful of downballot races are expected to showcase both parties’ up-and-comers in the Tar Heel State, where rapidly changing demographics may yield fresh opportunities — particularly for Democrats — similar to those its northern neighbor, Virginia, has experienced in recent cycles.

“If you look at voter registration, it’s trending Democratic,” a state Democratic lawmaker said Monday. “It’s the people moving in, but it’s also the mood of country.”

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), who faces her first re-election contest this year, likely will battle state Sen. Kay Hagan (D) or politically green Jim Neal (D), an investment adviser. And three Democrats and five Republicans have filed for this year’s open gubernatorial race, including state Treasurer Richard Moore (D).

Jay Reiff, who manages Moore’s campaign, said his boss’s departure from the treasurer’s office has drawn in state Sen. Janet Cowell (D) and Buncombe County Commissioner David Young (D), who “are both known to have bigger ambitions.”

This year’s lieutenant governor’s contest, too, has attracted considerable Democratic talent, Reiff said, including Hampton Dellinger, a onetime aide to Gov. Mike Easley, state Sen. Walter Dalton, Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse and retired Lt. Col. Pat Smathers.

“Whoever wins the [2008] race for lieutenant governor is probably going to take a run for governor,” said Reiff, who named Cowell as a likely future candidate for Rep. Brad Miller’s (D) Raleigh-based seat.

State Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) garnered national attention recently after he stepped in to handle rape allegations involving Duke University lacrosse players and opted out of the congested 2008 gubernatorial race and the Senate race.

“Cooper is biding his time,” Reiff said. “He decided to take a pass on this primary, but he is in his 40s, well respected and got national exposure for the Duke case.”

He added: “[Cooper’s] stock will only go up.”

Rep. Robin Hayes (R) will duel again this cycle with Larry Kissell (D), a teacher whose cult following put him within 330 votes of the incumbent in 2006 — without any help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, as Democrats plot their advances, Republicans also point to a number of promising greenhorns on next month’s primary ballot. North Carolina Republicans who spoke with Roll Call point particularly to state Senate hopeful David Rouzer (R), a former aide to Dole and ex-Sen. Jesse Helms (R).

“He’s a guaranteed guy to run for higher office,” a state GOP operative said.

And Onslow County Commissioner Joe McLaughlin (R) also is looking to make a political leap this year, challenging Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R), whose decision to now oppose the Iraq War has drawn criticism from the right. But should Jones defend his seat, a GOP source said, don’t expect a re-match in 2010.

“If he doesn’t beat Walter in the primary,” the source said, “Walter will be there as long as he wants.”

Some North Carolina Republicans in the state complain that heavily gerrymandered districts do little to stir proportional grass-roots involvement in a state that twice gave President Bush 56 percent of the vote — a shortcoming attributed to a weak state Republican Party.

Only freshman Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D) district is considered competitive cycle-to-cycle, one Republican said. And with ex-Rep. Charles Taylor’s (R) on-again, off-again flirtation with a 2008 rematch botching Republican chances in the district, Shuler will do battle with one of three B-list candidates, including Asheville City Councilman Carl Mumpower (R).

Shuler’s district picked Bush twice with at least 57 percent of the vote.

“It looks like [Shuler’s] going to get pretty comfy there,” the source said. “The Republican Party in North Carolina could do a lot better at developing a bench, so when important elections come we have some choices and we’re not scrambling to fill vacancies.”

The source continued that overly gerrymandered districts in the state give future House hopefuls little incentive to stick around and wait their turn. Case in point: Rep. Sue Myrick (R). A source of perpetual retirement rumors, Myrick’s Charlotte district is based in the state’s most Republican-leaning media market.

But so far, only district court judge Frank Whitney (R) is considered a possible Myrick successor.

“Some of our seats are so [gerrymandered] there’s no turnover,” the source grumbled.