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Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Asheville, speaks against a bill to impose election districts on the city of Asheville without a referendum.

RALEIGH — Call it a conversation starter.

It was no surprise to see a bill offered by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, to alter city council elections in Asheville. The Senator, who is stepping down after seven terms, told city leaders as much earlier this year.

The surprise surrounding the move came Friday when Apodaca, one of the Senate’s most powerful members, fell short in his effort in one of the final votes of the session.

But even with the bill shot down in a 58-48 vote by a rebellious state House of Representatives, Apodaca’s stated goal of geographically drawn districts for Asheville could yet come to pass, though not necessarily in the way or shape that he wanted.

In an interview Tuesday with Carolina Public Press, Asheville mayor Esther Manheimer said it’s clear that despite the Senator’s retirement, there is a possibility that another bill calling for district elections could be offered.

She said the defeat of the bill was “a great victory for democracy,” but added that many of the Republican legislators who voted against Apodaca’s bill are calling for the city to move ahead with a district system.

With another legislative session starting up in January, Manheimer said the city is likely to try and get ahead of any new legislation by starting a community conversation on how redistricting might be fairly implemented.

“It may be time for us to contemplate districts,” Manheimer said. “What the legislature did (by voting down the bill) was give us an opportunity to do that on our own.”

Manheimer said the city would likely start with community forums and a study of how to fairly draw the lines and put them in place.

“We want to make sure we’re using best practices in how we go about depoliticizing the process,” she said, adding that at some point the issue would have to be put before voters. It is too late, she said, to ready anything for the ballot this year.

The lack of a ballot referendum was a key point in arguments against Apodaca’s bill.

On the floor, a question of fairness

No matter where you were or what you were doing, if you were in the Legislative Building at 6:07 p.m. Friday evening, you knew something big happened.

A collective expression of astonishment, a mix of various gasps and exclamations, were heard throughout the building as the House ended debate on Senate Bill 897, An Act to Provide Electoral Districts for the City of Asheville, and voted it down. The outcome was unsure going into the final vote, something rare as the legislature winds up the session. Almost as rare as a key senator losing a pet bill.

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In all, 24 Republicans, including some of the most conservative members of the House, joined 35 Democrats to vote against the bill.

When the vote total was posted, the rumble on the House floor that had grown steadily louder as speeches grew more heated, dropped to a stunned silence.

Members of the Senate leadership who had come over to the House to work the bill along with the House leaders, watched the vote land with a thud, then quickly departed. Buncombe County House members Susan Fisher, John Ager and Brian Turner took it in from their seats, while colleagues jumped to congratulate them. Each had offered an amendment to the bill that had been defeated. But each amendment had underlined Asheville’s lack of input in the matter, a major point of their argument.

Fisher’s, which was defeated first and lost 47-56, would have required a referendum on the districts. Ager’s, voted down 40-63, also called for a referendum and a mixed plan with three at-large and three geographic districts. Turner’s amendment would have created an independent redistricting commission. It was defeated 47-59.

Rep. Brian Turner, D-Asheville, expresses his objections to a bill that would have created election districts for the city of Asheville without a referendum.

Fisher delivered the main case against the bill calling it “mandated factionalization” of the city and decrying a statement Apodaca filed with the bill that the delegation agreed with the plan as “unethical.”

“Beware,” she told her colleagues, “your city may be the next one to be gerrymandered.”

Ager called the bill another in a series of power moves over local government.

“The passage of Senate Bill 897 adds to the narrative that the leadership of this General Assembly is all about big government in Raleigh interfering once again with local matters best left to local leaders.”

Ager noted the ruling that morning in federal court against a Wake County plan recently passed by the legislature. He said Asheville would certainly file a legal challenge if the bill were to pass.

During discussion on the amendments and the bill itself, several Republicans said even if they supported the idea of districts or didn’t agree with the city politics of Asheville, the bill was still an overreach and inherently unfair.

“I thought about this one a lot,” Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell, said. “For me personally, because I wouldn’t want this to be done to Marion or Newland or Bakersville or Banner Elk or any other small town I represent, I’ll be voting no on this bill.”

Part of what sunk Apodaca’s effort was its conflict with rules that in the even numbered years — the so-called short sessions — the General Assembly can only consider local bills when there is unanimity among the local delegation.

Apodaca circumvented that rule by moving the bill through the Senate’s redistricting committee as an elections bill. Elections and redistricting bills are permitted in the short session under the rules.

Since it only applied to the City of the Asheville that move struck a nerve with some House members, even those who had voted in previous years support of similar Senate-led redistricting efforts in the City of Greensboro and Wake County.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said he was tired of the leadership “playing games” with the rules.

“This is a local bill and I know what is going (on),” Blust said in a fiery five minute speech calling out end-of-session horse trading. “We’re at the end of session. The sponsor holds a lot of the cards on the other side and there are things that aren’t going to pass if you guys don’t pass this.” He urged his colleges to vote against the bill saying it would do further damage the institution.

“If we’re going to ever get back honor and the belief of people we have to start showing it in the way to act,” he said.

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Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said he agreed with House leaders who ruled that the bill was an election bill and eligible for the short session. During debate, McGrady said the city had resisted the idea of redistricting and Apodaca, who represents a section of Asheville, was within his rights to introduce the legislation.

“The problem here is I know the history and I know the area,” McGrady said, speaking against Turner’s amendment calling for an independent redistricting commission. The city council and mayor, he said, had been asked to consider redistricting and hadn’t done so. McGrady acknowledged that he supported the idea of independent redistricting, but said he would support the bill to get the process moving in Asheville’s case.

“I would love to have independent redistricting. If they want to put in independent redistricting after this, that would be perfectly fine,” McGrady said. “But as the Rules chairman has said we need give this experiment an opportunity and I’ll be voting no on the amendment and yes on the bill.

Manheimer said she doesn’t think McGrady’s vote in support of the bill will damage what she said was a “cordial” relationship with the city. McGrady and the city are still on opposite sides of a legal fight over management of Asheville’s water system.

“We’ve done well in keeping isolated issues apart from a broader agreement about what’s good for the region,” she said.

Although said to be furious in private, after the vote Apodaca told a WRAL reporter the House had sent him a “goodbye present.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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