In a stunning defeat, the North Carolina House voted down a bill that would have made changes to the Asheville city council.
Senate Bill 897 was introduced by Republican Senator Tom Apodaca of Henderson County over the strong objection of the entire city council and all other state lawmakers representing Buncombe County. It would split Asheville into six districts drawn by the General Assembly for the purpose of electing council members. But the bill failed by a vote of 48-58.
How could that have happened? Most expected a bill pushed by Senator Apodaca, who’s considered one of the most powerful lawmakers in the General Assembly to sail to passage in a Republican-dominated legislature. Consider the legislature already successfully changed elections in Buncombe County, Wake County, and Greensboro (though the Wake County maps were thrown out by a federal appeals court on Friday and Greensboro's map was stayed by a court as well and its fate is not yet determined). Well, for half of the hour and 20 minute long debate, it appeared certain to pass. In fact, every Democratic Representative of Buncombe County in the House offered an amendment to modify the bill, and each was unsuccessful. First was Rep. Susan Fisher.
Rep. Susan Fisher: “This amendment would allow for a referendum to occur in November to allow the citizens of Asheville who will be affected by this to actually have a say in it.”
It failed 44-55. Next was Rep. John Ager, who proposed a dual system where 3 council members would be elected in districts and 3 elected by the entire city at-large.
Rep. John Ager: “I would hope that everyone would see that this is a compromise, that members of this body would see fit to support it. Thank you very much.”
It failed 40-63. Next, Rep. Brian Turner offered an amendment calling for independent redistricting that he said would accomplish the stated goals of Senator Apodaca.
Rep. Brian Turner: “But it would be transparent. It would be fair. It would offer us the peace of mind that we did the right thing. And so I hope you will support this amendment. And should this amendment pass, I would be very inclined to support this legislation.”
It was at this point that Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County weighed in, saying the amendment had some appeal to him.
Rep. Chuck McGrady: “Because I’m one of the primary sponsors of the non-partisan districting provision and therefore I look at this and I go, well, maybe I oughtta support it. But the problem here is I know the history, and I know the area. And I know for a fact that the mayor and council was asked to do this redistricting and for whatever set of reasons over whatever set of time, it hasn’t gotten done.
McGrady would stick to his guns, voting against the amendment, and for the overall bill. Later in the debate, Rep. Ager would say that districting never happened because it was never a big issue in Asheville. But back to the amendment, which TOO failed 43-60. At this point, you’d think it was over, right? No way the bill could fail. Well, then something happened. In a last-ditch effort to sway the vote, Rep. Fisher raised her voice, and for 5 minutes, tore into the bill and bill sponsor Senator Apodaca.
Fisher: “It is beyond my ability to understand why Asheville has been the continual target for authoritarian and penalizing legislation for much of the 12 years I have spent here. I resent the idea that the current senior senator and rules chair feels he must take one last parting shot at the city of Asheville when he in fact only represents a fraction of the residents of that city, less than 10,000. Ladies and gentlemen of the House, I urge you to vote no. And especially if you live in cities and towns that are trying their best to govern your whole city or town. Because beware: Yours may be the next city to be gerrymandered.”
Whether it was Fisher’s words or something else, something shifted. The House would debate for another 40 minutes, with some of the loudest arguments against the bill coming not from Democrats, but from Republicans. Rep. Josh Dobson, who represents 3 counties in western North Carolina.
Rep. Josh Dobson: “Asheville’s right next door to me, but I don’t have any particular allegiance to Asheville or anything like that. But I have thought about this one a lot. And we’ve heard it said here today, regardless of party, that the members of the city of Asheville have concerns about this. So members, for me personally, because I wouldn’t want this 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.”
Republican Rep. John Blust of Guilford County gave an impassioned 5 minute address blasting the House for going along with Senator Apodaca’s wishes, who he implied was holding up House legislation unless he got his way. The bill was introduced as an elections bill, making it eligible, but a local bill would not be allowed at this time in the session.
Rep. John Blust: “This bill is not eligible. I don’t care what you call it. This is a local bill. And you wonder why what’s going on in politics is going on today. It is a local bill that’s not eligible by our rules and our rules mean nothing. Your word means nothing…. When it’s my last day I wanna walk outta here knowing I never crawled. I’m not gonna crawl out of here. Even if I get nothing. I’m gonna hold my head up high and think I did the best I could and I didn’t compromise principle. And if you hit that green button, you’re compromising principle. It’s time to vote this down, take whatever consequences may come from the other side, because that’s what courage and leadership is. It’s the willingness to take whatever hits might come your way.”
And finally, Republican Michael Speciale of New Bern questioned his colleagues rhetorically why a referendum wasn’t allowed. Because, he said, it was suspected the citizens of Asheville would not support the districts.
Rep. Michael Speciale: “The vision of the anointed, that we know better than the people, the citizens of Asheville, because we may not agree ideologically with the citizens of Asheville or the city council of Asheville. I’m sorry but we don’t need to agree with them because we don’t live there. And the people that live there selected those people that are representing them on the city council and we don’t have to like them or agree with them.
At this point in the debate, Senator Apodaca had walked into the chamber to watch the bill being debated, but not for long. Hearing enough, House Speaker Tim Moore called for the vote. The bill failed by a vote of 48-58.
And so, the retiring Senator Tom Apodaca, the man often called one of North Carolina’s most powerful lawmakers, on probably his final night in session, had to stand powerlessly on the sidelines to watch the House send his bill down in defeat.
***Below, you'll find links to all of our reports on SB897. As a bonus, we've included the speech by Rep. John Blust in its entirety at the audio file below.***