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Voting wrongs.

North Carolina's new 12th congressional district was conceived, appropriately, during a brief political tryst at an interstate motel. One day in 1991, Thomas Hardaway, a Democratic state representative, met with John Men-itt, an aide to incumbent Democratic Rep. Charlie Rose, at a Howard Johnson's off Interstate 95 in Gold Rock, North Carolina.

The purpose of the rendezvous? To plot how to draw majority-black congressional districts without jeopardizing existing Democratic districts. "I guess it was kind of funny, meeting like that," Hardaway says. The resulting district, the 12th, is equally amusing, or at least equally bizarre: It runs along three interstates, has a perimeter of 907 miles and is, in places, only as wide as the road. A majority-black seat now held by a black freshman Democrat, the district toddles and twists 141 miles across the state, connecting clusters of racial minorities in four major cities. The district respects no county lines, no city limits, no test of common sense.

Welcome to the new world of racial gerrymandering. What made the North Carolina district possible--and others like it in Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Florida, New York, and elsewhere-was the partisan manipulation of the relatively obscure Voting Rights Act of 1982. Originally intended to guarantee Southern blacks the fight to vote, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended in 1982 to give racial and ethnic minorities the fight to "elect representatives of their choice." The amendment presumes that those representatives of choice would belong to the same racial or ethnic group: Blacks would want black congressmen; hispanics, hispanic congressmen.

Although passed by Congress 10 years ago, the 1982 law affected its first congressional election in 1992, after the once-a-decade redrawing of districts. And, ironically, the initial signs are that the newly gerrymandered districts may actually hurt those who most eagerly lobbied for them: minorities and Republicans.

The good news for minorities is that historic numbers of black and hispanic representatives were elected to Congress (58 minority representatives, 52 of whom are from majority-minority districts, up from 38 minority representatives in 1990). In that light, the 1982 amendment seems a fine, bipartisan piece of legislation. But while there may be a greater number of minorities in Congress, it's also true that minorities are now in a more tenuous position. A minority voter in a majority-minority district--virtually all of which are heavily Democratic--has no real choice to make between the two major parties. Democrats are the only players on the field.

And a minority congressman, once in Washington, has few common points of interest with the representatives of neighboring, snowy-white districts. This state of affairs is no accident. During reapportionment, Republicans decided to press for minority districts, figuring (correctly) that quarantining minority voters would necessarily create competitive districts next door.

"For us, it was sort of, 'What the hell, let's maximize our suburban base,'" says Tony Snow, who was Bush's deputy assistant for media affairs. Minorities, as a result, are exiled to political reservations and given a few voices in Congress, while white Democrats and Republicans represent overwhelmingly white districts.

This means that one casualty of the 1982 law's enforcement could be, ironically, the particular concerns of the minority community. Says Clarence Carter, director of African-American political affairs for the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 1992, "It's intractable, really: The Republicans have found it expedient to wall us off, and the Democrats take us for granted." There's a national element to all this as well: People don't vote for a presidential candidate because of who their congressman is, but political coalitions and alliances begin at that level. The Republicans have given up, and the Democrats are coasting on old loyalties. Think back to the fall campaign: Did Bush appeal for minority votes? Did Clinton embrace a minority agenda? The answer is no on both counts.

As for the Republicans, gerrymandering led to short term gains, allowing them to net 10 new GOP U.S. House seats nationwide; in the 13 states where new majority-minority districts were created, Republicans picked up 12 seats. (Only one of those Republicans, an hispanic, is from a majority-minority district--one based in the heavily Republican community of Cuban-Americans in south Florida.) But the new districts also led to increased Democratic voter turnout--a turnout which, without question, helped the Democrats capture the White House. "As much or more than Clinton, the reason for the additional black turnout was due to the new minority districts, both congressional and state legislative," says David Bositis, a senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "You're talking about new districts, new candidates, new excitement--it really churned the pot."

Of course, in some places, majority-minority districts are required in order to send a minority to Congress. It's also true, however, that such districts can be drawn without meandering around existing districts, creating grotesquely shaped legislative inventions. Where majority-minority districts are geographically compact--in Memphis, for example, or in Rep. John Lewis's Atlanta district-- it's unfair to question their logic or, in a raceconscious time, their necessity.

But the headlong quest for high numerical majorities undermines traditional notions of representation and ignores examples of minority candidates (California Rep. Ron Dellums and Missouri Rep. Alan Wheat come to mind) who win in districts where minorities don't make up overwhelming percentages. In fact, in 1991, before reapportionment, 40 percent of the black representatives in Congress were elected from non-majority-black districts. Certainly, these are exceptions to the rule of minimal minority political success, but they prove that minority candidates are competitive in political arenas that aren't racially gerrymandered out of all proportion.

Caught mapping

Who's to blame? The better question is, who isn't? "It's hard to put white hats on the Democrats or the Republicans," says Laughlin McDonald, a lawyer who runs the American Civil Liberties Union's Southern Voting Rights Act Project. Just look at the North Carolina district, or at the one in Georgia that meanders from Atlanta to the sea, or at the one in New York where a majority-hispanic district wanders from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens. These districts weren't created to give minorities a break; they were grudgingly drawn by Democrats to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. And Republicans hoped to pack as many minorities into districts as could conceivably fit.

The result was a wild redrawing of congressional district maps. In the past two years, the 1982 Voting Rights Act was chiefly enforced in 13 states with high percentages of minorities, and in the Southern states, where there has been a pattern of racial discrimination: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. While the Democratically-controlled state legislatures drew up the plans, the federal Justice Department could, in nine of the states, review any laws affecting reapportionment. If Justice thought the plans failed to maximize a minority candidate's chances of getting elected, it would reject them.

There was another way Republicans and minority activists could get around Democratic legislatures. If there was a Republican governor with veto power (as in California and Alabama), the governor could nix the Democratic legislature's plans and send the process to court. Even without a GOP governor, the Republicans filed lawsuits claiming reapportionment was at an impasse. To convince the courts that more minority districts (and consequently, more competitive districts for Republicans) were possible, the GOP drew alternative maps. That way, the courts or Justice, acting under the 1982 Voting Rights Act, could force recalcitrant legislatures to draw the new majority-minority districts--or do it for them.

Consider North Carolina, where racial gerrymandering hit a new low. Early in the process, the Democratic legislature (the governor, in a quirk of law, has no veto) drew one majority-black district in the eastern part of the state. Because of population growth, North Carolina had picked up a congressional seat, and the legislature's first plan conceded the new district to the Republicans. As the plan went to the Justice Department for review, a Republican state legislator introduced an alternative, proposing a second majority-minority district--one that stretched from the middle of the state to the Atlantic coast. It combined blacks and Native Americans, therefore not guaranteeing that a black would be elected, but giving blacks significant influence. Not coincidentally, the GOP proposal would have sucked Democratic voters out of three incumbent Democrats' districts. Justice, in rejecting the first plan, expressed an interest in what the Republicans had drawn; the Democrats then realized that Justice would accept oddly designed districts to satisfy the majority-minority edict.

That's the point at which Hardaway and Merritt had their reapportionment meeting at the Howard Johnson's. But partisan motives produced distorted districts--in places, one side of the interstate is in one district, and the other side is in the 12th. It's not a community; it's a demographically pure enclave.

In Georgia, where the legislature first met on reapportionment in August of 1991, the state GOP chairman said it would be "an abdication of (the legislature's) responsibility" not to draw as many majority-black districts as possible. Because of the rapid growth of the Republican-leaning Atlanta suburbs in the eighties, the state had already picked up a new congressional seat; at this point, the only Republican in the state's 10-member delegation was Newt Gingrich.

Over the next eight months, the Justice Department would reject three separate Georgia congressional plans passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Georgians for Fair Redistricting, a nonprofit corporation monitoring reapportionment and supported by the Republicans, eventually filed suit, claiming that the legislature would be unable to do the job in time for the May qualifying deadlines for state and federal offices. The courts, the group argued, should now step in. It was a clever move that was repeated across the country. In Georgia, as elsewhere, the prospect of having Reagan-Bush federal judges shaping the map terrified Democratic lawmakers. With that threat looming over the Georgia legislature, the leadership broke down and drew a third majority-black district, siphoning Democratic voters out of other districts. Justice finally agreed, ending the matter before the federal court deadline.

The result was the election of two new black representatives and three new GOP congressmen. "I think the outcome was very, very good," says Don Hill, a consultant to the Georgia GOR

But the Republican victories came at a heavy price: Black turnout was up 34 percent in Georgia in 1992, where blacks make up a quarter of the electorate. Eighty-eight thousand more black voters turned out in 1992 than had in 1988; Clinton's margin of victory in the state was 16,000 votes. With Clinton making headway in the suburbs, Bush lost, and the black vote made the difference.

In a suburban Atlanta district where a freshman Republican narrowly won, blacks were cut away to boost minority percentages in the huge majority-black 11th Congressional District, which picks up voters in three different cities from Atlanta to Savannah-kind of a second Sherman's march. In middle Georgia, the requirement for a majority-black district cost a white incumbent his political base, helping elect a freshman Republican in his place. The Democrats rightly feared that removing key blocs of minority voters from majority-white districts would put Democrats at risk.

Those white Democrats who did win are decidedly centrist, even conservative. Michael Thurmond, a state representative who was head of the Legislative Black Caucus during reapportionment, opposed the final plan, believing it put race ahead of a traditional liberal agenda. "That's what people haven't seen yet," says Thurmond. "The question is, did we really win? The only whites that can get elected are very conservative, whether Democrat or Republican. Consequently, while you get more minorities elected, you get fewer progressive votes in the delegation as a whole." That's one of the critical consequences of racial redistricting: Will minority representatives become lonely voices for traditionally liberal causes now that neighboring representatives have so little political stake in explicitly racial issues? What happened in Georgia's delegation could happen elsewhere.

At bottom, politics ought to be about building consensus and offering legitimate choices. That's not happening now in either of the major parties. "There are more and more Democrats who know that the Clinton strategy will work," says Bositis of the Joint Center. "As long as you don't mind killing a few black men on death row or insulting Sister Souljah or appearing to have a tiff with Jesse Jackson, you'll do well, and you'll get the black vote anyway." It doesn't help that the 1982 amendment makes race a prerequisite in some elections. Civil fights supporters argue that participation in government is necessary to bringing minorities into the political mainstream.

But neither party accepted that fundamental premise during reapportionment. It instead was a matter of playing strategic games to maximize partisan advantage.

"The most egregious maps, the ones that make you intuitively say something's wrong with this, were drawn by Democrats trying to hold on to what they had," says Ben Ginsberg, the RNC's chief counsel and principal enforcer of the Voting Rights Act strategy. In many states, the facts bear Ginsberg out. The problem is that criticism comes from a party that opposes preferential policies in hiring, contracting, and all other arenas of political life. Voting rights seem to be a different thing entirely.

From 1990 to 1992, the first year under the new congressional map, the percentage of blacks represented by Republicans in Congress dropped. In North Carolina, for instance, the average in 1990 was 15 percent; now, of the four districts held by Republicans, the black population makes up an average of 5.7 percent. In Democratic districts that aren't majority-minority, the average hovers from 20 to 25 percent. Nationally, according to Election Data Services, districts held by Republicans in 1990 were 6.84 percent black; in 1993, the average is 5.56 percent.

If the Republicans don't think this is trouble, they only have to look to the Democrats' history since 1968, when Democrats cut themselves off from segments of the white middle-class electorate, taking politically suicidal stands on things like welfare or, as in 1988, on the Massachusetts prison furlough system. Then, in 1992, Clinton got it right. He acknowledged that welfare needed reform, and he was sufficiently tough on crime to dull that perennial wedge issue. But those are sensible stands anyway. Even out of political context, it's a good idea to end dependency on welfare, and there's nothing wrong with locking up bad guys.

By the same token then, Republicans would not be selling out by being fair to blacks and hispanics (and whites, for that matter) caught in poverty or in discriminatory situations. The political problem will only get worse: Minorities will make up 30 percent of the nation's population within 10 years. "Republicans just assume the minority vote can't be gotten," says Bill Brock, the former RNC chairman who rebuilt the party after its 1976 defeat. "That's crazy. There are a very substantial number of minority Americans who are worried about taxes and crime and education and would be receptive to our views on those things. I think a lot of the Republicans, just like the Democrats, wallowed in hypocrisy on the Voting Rights Act. They used it to divide and segment and segregate. I just think we're wrong on this."

Racially gerrymandered districts amount to political ghettos, and even strategists and sponsors with the largest stake in the 1982 amendment are increasingly ambivalent about it. The 1982 version runs until 2007 and controls redistrictings for city councils, judicial districts, and other local offices. "There is a point of diminishing return, when minority districts are so packed that minority influence is dramatically cut in other districts," says Texas Rep. Craig Washington, who represents a majority-minority district. "I start from the premise that the Voting Rights Act is intended to empower voters, not elected officials. The bottom line ought to be which candidate will best represent his constituents' concerns." That's a notion whose time never came in racial reapportionment. And the-losers may well-be the fen-flung minority pockets that got caught between Republican dreams, incumbent ambitions, and a law that sent district lines cavorting down the interstate.
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Title Annotation:racial reapportionment
Author:Meacham, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change.
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