Politics: Republican Quota Fiasco


"They had to give your job to a minority," says the sneering off-screen narrator, as a pair of white hands crumples a job notice and a synthesizer plays a single, ominous musical note. This TV ad, from Sen. Jesse Helms's successful 1990 re-election bid in North Carolina, is one of the most enduring political images of recent years. Rebroadcast constantly throughout the nation, the ad served as a wake-up call about popular resentment of racial quotas.

For liberals and Democrats, it typified—together with the Willie Horton ad of 1988—the inherent racism of modern politics. For conservatives and Republicans, the ad was thrilling: It showed someone was brave enough to bash reverse discrimination directly, and it worked.

Less than three years later, another North Carolina quota controversy made national headlines. This time, the issue was an electoral redistricting plan. Two gerrymandered majority-black districts were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, proclaimed that "racial classifications of any sort pose the risk of lasting harm to our society. They reinforce the belief, held by too many for too much of our history, that individuals should be judged by the color of their skin."

The difference between the 1990 Helms ad and the 1993 gerrymandering decision is that in the latter case Republicans in North Carolina and the Bush Justice Department had favored quotas. In a Faustian bargain replicated in states across the country, North Carolina Republicans allied with leaders of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union to push for as many safe black districts as possible. The strategy was supposed to make surrounding majority-white districts more competitive for the GOP.

While The Wall Street Journal and other national organs with reliable conservative credentials have heaped well-deserved scorn on ridiculous gerrymanders in North Carolina and other states, they have largely ignored the culpability of Republicans. As Tom De Witt, a former political aide in the Helms organization, put it, "the Republican Party cynically granted the legitimacy" of racial gerrymandering and thus helped set the stage for the outrageous districts to follow.

Until the Supreme Court decision threw a monkey wrench into the works, North Carolina Democrats couldn't believe their good fortune. After the 1990 census, it became obvious that population growth would add a seat to the state's 11-seat delegation. Democrats feared it would be a Republican one, since population shifts had favored suburban areas where GOP leanings were well established. So when the Democratic leadership in the state House and Senate presented a redistricting plan with a new 12th District (a safe GOP seat) and a new First District (a black-majority one), they thought that was about as good as they could do.

Sure, the plan was silly. One district was soon dubbed a "bug splat." And new computer technology had made it possible for designers to slice through precincts, neighborhoods, and even city blocks. In Charlotte's Mecklenburg County, a grand total of four people—Benny Reeder, his wife, and two neighbors—were scooped out of the Ninth District and placed in the 12th, just so voter totals would be perfectly even. Reeder's memorable comment at the time was that he didn't much care about his reassignment, since politicians "pretty much do what they please anyway."

But Democrats couldn't do any better if they wanted to keep party incumbents happy, which is usually a good idea. So they handed Republicans a safe seat, while whittling away halfheartedly at a couple of other GOP districts.

Republican aspirants to the 12th District spot popped up almost immediately. Alan Pugh, a telegenic lawyer in former Gov. Jim Martin's administration, resigned his job and started assembling a campaign war chest and organization, aided by popular GOP donor and race-car driver Richard Petty. Other challengers also salivated at the prospect of snagging, and presumably keeping, the new seat.

For Republican leaders, however, the Democrats' offer wasn't sufficient. David Balmer, a boyish Charlotte lawyer and soon-to-be minority leader in the N.C. House, stepped forward with some alternative maps. He proposed that at least one more minority district, encompassing blacks and Indians, could be drawn in the southeastern part of the state. Not coincidentally, drawing such a district would make as many as five Democratic districts suddenly competitive. Because of Balmer's maps, the U.S. Justice Department decided to reject North Carolina's redistricting plan, on the grounds that it didn't draw enough minority districts.

Many black activists seized on the Balmer plan as a way to gain another seat. The ACLU also weighed in to favor the second district. Only a few Republicans fidgeted at the prospect of gaining power, potentially even control of the state's congressional delegation, by embracing racial quotas. And Democrats—including some black leaders, such as House Speaker Dan Blue—saw political disaster in the offing. They stressed the need for blacks and whites to work together to elect candidates and pointed to the success of Harvey Gantt (Helms's 1990 opponent) in attracting significant white support to prove that racial gerrymandering wasn't needed.

Even Lani Guinier, still relatively obscure at this point, weighed in to suggest "cumulative voting" as an alternative to further gerrymandering. Guinier suggested that all 12 members of Congress be elected statewide, with each voter receiving 12 votes to cast however he or she wished. "The advantage of cumulative voting," she said, "is…it doesn't give incumbents the great control over their political fortune that districts do." Gantt's campaign manager, Charlotte lawyer Mel Watt, typified the Democrats' conflict: "We need to create minority districts whenever we can, but teaming up with the GOP could be devastating."

Naturally, North Carolina's Democratic congressmen agreed with Watt, but not with Guinier. That's why Rep. Charlie Rose of the Seventh District—whose chance to become speaker of the house would disappear, along with his seat, with the introduction of Balmer's district or cumulative voting—stepped in.

John Merritt, an employee of the House Administration Committee, which Rose chaired, showed up in the state capital with an ingenious solution. Draw a second district, he said, but not through Democratic areas in southeastern North Carolina. Instead, draw it along the "Interstate 85 corridor" in the center of the state, right through Republican-leaning areas. Of course, Merritt assured everyone who would listen, this was not an official Rose proposal, just an "option for legislative consideration."

The district Merritt mapped out became the infamous "snake" district about which Justice O'Connor wrote, "It is unsettling how closely the N.C. plan resembles the most egregious racial gerrymanders of the past." For Democratic congressmen such as Rose, the new district now posed no problem at all. For Mel Watt, who had worried about GOP perfidy, the map was even more welcome. He promptly announced his candidacy and eventually won the seat. Even Republican incumbents benefited, as black enclaves in their districts were carved out and tethered to the I-85 district.

Who lost? Pugh and other GOP hopefuls suddenly found themselves without a district to run in. On election day, the Republicans actually lost ground proportionally—the congressional delegation went from a seven-four Democratic advantage to an eight-four Democratic edge. The state party avoided total catastrophe only because Republican freshman Charles Taylor narrowly won re-election in the mountainous 11th District, the most competitive in the United States during the 1980s.

As the pattern of Justice Department collusion with civil-rights lobbies was repeated across the country, voters were presented with new, often incomprehensible political districts in such states as Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Illinois (home of the "earmuff' majority-Hispanic district), and Virginia, where Gov. Doug Wilder and other black politicians had, after all, already been elected in white-majority areas.

More important than the immediate electoral fallout, however, was the loss of a coherent message about quotas and reverse discrimination. Even though Republicans in North Carolina and nationwide could legitimately claim to be victims of partisan line drawing, they had handed Democratic lawmakers the pencil. For Republican cynics, collusion with the quota lobby amounted to stammering: "Message: We don't care."

John Dunne, the Bush Justice official who carried out the collusion strategy, tried to defend himself by arguing that the Voting Rights Act demanded as many minority-leaning districts as possible. But that interpretation was not at all mandated by precedent or policy. "The Justice Department was overzealous," says Michael Hess, the new Republican National Committee chief counsel, who is departing from previous GOP strategy.

And even if the law did appear to mandate racial gerrymandering, why not stand up and fight for principle? After all, "race may still have much to do with the way people vote, often too much," writes voting-rights scholar Abigail Thernstrom. "Reality is not perfect, but our principles should remain so. We need electoral arrangements that deliver the right messages." But, of course, we are talking about the Bush administration.

The Supreme Court, however, deserves no kudos for its role in the redistricting fiasco. It could have taken the opportunity presented by the North Carolina case and others to define neutral principles to guide districting plans, such as the strict compactness standard proposed by Daniel Polsby and Robert Popper for the Heartland Institute. So could the Republicans, while they enjoyed at least nominal power in Washington.

Instead, lawmakers in both parties are left with the Court's unsatisfying conclusion that North Carolina's plan "bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid" but that no clear-cut rules exist for judging Voting Rights Act claims. What will pass muster? It's anybody's guess.

By the way, Popper, a litigation attorney with Sidley & Austin in New York City, has a unique take on the much-repeated allegation that "Mickey Mouse could draw better districts" than North Carolina's legislature did. Popper actually drew a district in central North Carolina in the shape of Mickey Mouse and then measured it using the ratio of the district's perimeter to its area. The Mickey Mouse district, Popper says, "would be four to five times more compact than North Carolina's 12th District" using that compactness measure. And that, Popper adds, even includes Mickey's "long, non-compact tail." Perhaps state legislators across the country—lacking guidance either from the Court or (apparently) from neutral principles of equal opportunity under the law—should hire a few cartoonists and see what they can come up with. It truly can't get much worse.

Contributing Editor John Hood is vice president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., and a columnist for the N. C. Business Press Syndicate.