‘We must protect access to the ballot box,’ retiring Rep. G.K. Butterfield says

North Carolina Democrat talks gerrymandering past and present

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, seen here on March 15, first came to Congress in 2004.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, seen here on March 15, first came to Congress in 2004. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 5, 2022 at 6:15am

G.K. Butterfield Jr. learned politics at his father’s knee. The elder Butterfield in 1953 became the first African American elected to City Council in Wilson, N.C. But a few years later, the council changed election rules while the Butterfields were out of town, making it so Butterfield Sr. couldn’t win reelection without significant support from white voters. He lost.

The episode taught his son about both the promise of politics and the risk of revanchism. It’s what eventually led him to Congress.

Butterfield felt the past repeating itself last year, after Republican state lawmakers drew a congressional district map that put him in a tough race. He announced his retirement in November. Since then, courts tossed the gerrymandered maps, but Butterfield is still leaving, with plans to write a book. The topic? History, of course.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You recently donated boxes and boxes of mementos from your life and career to the University of North Carolina, so you’re obviously someone who thinks a lot about history. Do you feel like we’re in a historic moment right now?

A: Every generation feels they are in a transitional moment, and that is true today. We are in transition, whether you’re talking about climate change, race relations, political extremism, misinformation or disinformation campaigns. 

That’s why I’m very, very strong on campaign finance reform and election reform. We must protect access to the ballot box. Right now, some of the extremes on the right want to deny the right to vote, not just to African Americans, but to any voter who is likely to vote for a Democratic candidate. 

Q: Do you see any parallels between the gerrymandered maps that inspired your decision to retire and what happened to your father back in the 1950s when he served on the City Council in Wilson?

A: First of all, my decision to retire is based on multiple factors. The district is becoming less Democratic and more of a toss-up, which means that out of necessity, my political views would have to move more to the center, even some to the right. And that’s not G.K. Butterfield.

Having said that, I am 74 years old, soon to be 75, and there’s a time in any member’s life when he or she must determine if it’s time to pass the torch. And I’m ready. 

Going back to the gerrymandering question, there are two types. What we saw in the 1st District is a combination of both. The racial gerrymandering started 10 years ago, when the Republican legislature drew the district and packed as many African American communities as they could find into it. Well, we challenged it and won. Then we turned our attention to partisan gerrymandering, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled [in 2019] that partisan gerrymandering is not [prohibited] by the federal constitution. And so we decided to challenge in the state courts, which finally ruled in our favor [in February], and the interim map is now much fairer. I wanted a 7-7 map, but it appears it may be a 7-6-1 map, seven Republicans, six Democrats, and one toss-up.

Many people are asking me if I would have continued to attempt to serve if I had known the district would be restored, and the answer is no. I was satisfied the time had come. But the Republicans spend every waking hour trying to find ways to discourage and even disenfranchise voters of color, and it’s unacceptable. It’s reprehensible.

What happened in my father’s case was very interesting. In 1953, he ran [for City Council] from a ward that had a large number of African American voters. These voters had become voters because they passed the literacy test, which was very difficult. When he was reelected in 1955, that was a bit too much for those in power, and they decided to change to an at-large election. My dad would not only run in the community in which he lived, but he would run citywide, which meant he needed to persuade white voters in 1957 to vote for an African American candidate, and that was not to be. They also created a rule so African American voters could not simply single shot for the minority candidate.

I compare that to 2016, 2018 or 2020, and I see even though the strategies are different, there are similarities — there is a concerted effort to dilute and deny the voting franchise to voters of color and others who are inclined to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Q: You talk about the people who are going to pick up the torch. What is your advice to them, this next generation? 

A: Be authentic. Do not change your politics or your viewpoint to fit political necessity. That’s what Eva Clayton told me when I was elected and succeeded her. You must be willing to disagree even with your leadership if you feel they’re going down the wrong path. Rural America has some striking differences from urban communities, and those members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, who represent rural communities must be assertive. They must speak loudly on behalf of those who have been marginalized. 

[But it’s also] necessary in this environment for Democrats and Republicans to reconcile their differences on the big issues and get them passed. That’s why I was so disappointed with Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — they were not willing to reconcile the differences on voting legislation. 

Q: You’ve spent 18 years in Congress. How has this institution changed, and has it been for the better?

A: I came here in a special election on July 21, 2004. When I walked onto the House floor, I began to understand that Denny Hastert, John Boehner and that generation of Republican leaders were certainly conservative, but they were thoughtful conservatives, respectful conservatives. While we had vigorous partisan debates on the floor and in the committees, at the end of the day, we compromised. The Voting Rights Act extension of 2006 was a good example. 

But as years went on, that changed. It was ignited by the Affordable Care debate in 2009, with bitter opposition not just to the legislation, but to the process and the institution of Congress. That was the turning point, the advent of the tea party, and Republicans must bear the responsibility for allowing it to become a movement that then gave birth to Donald Trump and Trumpism.

Supporters of Trumpism are very active and very loud across the country, and they’re making incumbent Republicans, even those who otherwise would be moderate, very uncomfortable in their home districts. Rather than stand up to the extremes, they capitulate, and I don’t see that changing. I think it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. I’m tired of it.

Q:  One of the joys of retirement is getting to tell people what you really think as you’re walking out the door. 

A: I came up in a season where you don’t criticize your colleagues, and so I’ve tried to have the greatest amount of respect and deference for both sides of the aisle. But let me just call out Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn. I don’t know about their character, but they are despicable in their politics. They have such disrespect for the institution of the Congress of the United States. Marjorie Taylor Greene refused to put on a mask [on the House floor last year] and paid $5,000 for each violation. And Madison Cawthorn’s rhetoric has crossed the line, let me just put it that way. 

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Dangerous Donations.” 

In politics, can the ends justify the means? The ends cannot always justify the means. There has to be middle ground so often.

One thing you’d change about Congress? Public financing of campaigns. Fundraising is awful.

What are you proud of? My relationship with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, we have become a family. If there’s one thing I regret about leaving Congress, it’s leaving those relationships behind. 

What’s next for you? I want to write a book. I may want to practice law a little bit and do some lecturing.