'I Know That's Not Right': Richard Vinroot On Gerrymandering
The Republican ex-Charlotte mayor joins effort to end partisan redistricting in North Carolina
Richard Vinroot, Charlotte’s Republican mayor from 1991 to 1995, has publicly joined Democratic former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker in an effort to end partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.
It’s a tenured problem in this state. Both parties, here and elsewhere, are guilty of it. But it’s reached grotesque proportions under the current GOP leadership in the General Assembly, which has the authority to redraw congressional and legislative district lines after Census years. It’s led to absurdities such as the 12th Congressional District, which a Washington Post analysis recently showed is the most gerrymandered district in the nation. North Carolina also holds the fifth and seventh spots on the top 10 list.
I spoke with Vinroot last week about the group’s efforts. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How’s the effort going so far?
Vinroot: About 30 to 40 mayors have signed on so far, but the people whose support we really need are the powerful people in the legislature, and understandably, these are folks who are friends of mine who have been out in the hinterlands for a lot of their careers when the Democrats had control, and they were then saying the same things I’m saying: “We need to change the system.” But now that they’ve gained control, they’re taking the same position their predecessors did. And I’m certainly sympathetic … But it’s the right thing to do, and I think that over time it’ll be better for everybody, because it will engender voter participation at all levels of government, and that’s a good thing.
How did this get started?
Vinroot: I can’t claim to be one of the founders of the idea. I was contacted several years ago by some folks in Raleigh who were coming down to talk about it, and they asked me if I would participate, and I said I would. I said, “If you want to continue to talk about it, I’d be interested.” They eventually called back and said, “Would you and Charles Meeker, a Democrat and a Republican, along with governors Hunt and Martin, a Democrat and a Republican, be willing to sign on in support of this idea?” I said I would.
Vinroot: Well, I think a lot of what’s wrong with American politics today can be blamed on gerrymandering. We have basically created districts that are all but a few decided in the primaries by extreme people of the left or right. That’s probably an overstatement, but it’s not too far off. As a result, people are being elected by maybe 10 or 15 percent of the population, who all share their views, because when they get to the general election, with all the gerrymandering that’s taken place, it creates districts where only representatives of the far right or left need apply. It’s a bad system, and it means when you get to Washington, out of 435 Congressional seats, maybe 35 of them are the product of real elections in the fall. The other 400 were nominated in primaries and had either no opposition or token opposition because the district was so tilted that the other party had no chance.
The outcome is that people don’t talk to each other and don’t negotiate and don’t have to, and they certainly don’t have to care what the majority of the people think because all they have to worry about is the small percentage of either Republicans or Democrats who nominated them in the primary. As long as they please those people, they’re home free. That makes no sense.
In and around Mecklenburg County, the 10 counties around Mecklenburg County, 70 percent of the people serving in the legislature were elected two weeks ago in a primary in which about 12 percent of the people [voted]. The other 30 percent will be elected in elections that for the most part aren’t really contested elections either. They’re simply elections in which somebody signed up on the other side, like somebody tilting at windmills and deciding, “Well, I’ll take her on or him on in the fall.” But by and large, we all know who will come out of those elections, just as we know that what happened in the primaries was pretty much the end of the ballgame.
There’s no sense in being naïve about it: Gerrymandering is something both parties have done through the years. Why now? What’s the urgency?
Vinroot: There’s no urgency. It’s just right. It’s no more urgent than it was 15 years ago. It was right then. It’s right now. I just think somebody ought to say that.
What are your specific goals?
Vinroot: The specifics are to persuade the legislature to permit a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would require that this provision be put in our constitution that requires that districts in the future be drawn in a nonpartisan way, so that both parties are … safe from meddling by the other party once the other party gains control, which is inevitable. I’m realistic. The Republicans are in control now, but that’s not going to last forever. It probably will last until the end of the decade because of the good gerrymandering that now protects our majority, just as it lasted for a number of decades because of the good gerrymandering of the Democratic majority. Both sides play the game really well …
Now, even if we did manage to get this through, it wouldn’t take effect for another six years, and by that time, who knows who’ll be in the majority? So both sides will have done something to protect themselves from the uncertainties of the future … so my folks, the Republicans, can have at it for the next six years in our gerrymandered districts and have a great advantages for the next six years. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. We’re in control, and we have the power to keep ourselves in control for another six years. Obviously, the voters can decide otherwise, but it’s not likely, the way the lines are drawn.
And presumably, under a nonpartisan redistricting system, the districts would make more geographic sense, and you wouldn’t have weird districts like the 12th Congressional, which is one of the most gerrymandered …
Vinroot: No, no, you’re wrong. It’s not “one of.” It’s the most. Recently, they had an analysis of districts across the nation, and it is number one. I always want my Tar Heels to be number one. We’ve got something in North Carolina I doubt we want to be number one in: the most perfectly gerrymandered district in the country, and we’ve got the most gerrymandered state in the nation in terms of our Congressional districts. I think the last time we had an election for Congress in North Carolina, 54 or 55 percent of the people voted for Democrats; however, because of the way the districts were gerrymandered, nine out of the 13 seats went to Republicans. We did a pretty good job of setting those things up so that we, a minority of voters, elected a strong majority of the Congressional seats …
You know, we teach our children to play fair, and this is really sort of the grown-up version of playing fair. We wouldn’t sit at the dinner table and tell our children, “This is the way you play your games at school: Set up an unfair advantage for yourself, then have a competition, and you win because you’ve set up an unfair competition for yourself.” We would never preach that to our children, but we certainly practice it ourselves. And I don’t think we would ever sit around the dinner table and brag to our children about the way our legislative gerrymandering system works. I think we’d like for them not to know that’s how it works …
OK, I think that’ll do it. I appreciate your talking to me this morning …
Vinroot: Well, let me give you a couple of little personal examples that come to my mind. My uncle Fred [Vinroot], who is now deceased, was the campaign manager back in 1952 for Mr. Charlie Jonas, who became our congressman here in the Ninth District. He was … one of two Republicans elected in the entire South that year; that was when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president.
For the next 20 years, Mr. Jonas went to Congress from Lincoln County, representing Mecklenburg County. During his 20 years, the Democrats in the legislature would try to rearrange his district to try to unseat Mr. Jonas, and they never succeeded …
What was interested about that is Mr. Jonas, every year, would drive his car from Lincolnton up to Washington, and he would stop in Tarboro and pick up Mr. L.H. Fountain, who was a Democratic congressman from Tarboro. Mr. Jonas and Mr. Fountain were friends in college and were both lawyers, and they liked each other. But they were conservatives, although they were from different parties. But they had a personal relationship.
Now fast-forward. I went to my college reunion last year at Chapel Hill, and one of my classmates is the wife of a congressman from eastern North Carolina, Martin Lancaster, who was there I think for 12 years. She was telling my wife Judy and me about going back a couple of years ago with Martin after he had left Congress six or eight years earlier and going into the Congressional Dining Room and going over to sit down with some old friends of theirs at a table, and it turns out several of those old friends were Republicans.
When they got up to leave, she said several of the current Democratic congressional wives chastised her and Martin for sitting at that table, “because we don’t associate with those people.” And I thought to myself, “How things have changed because of what has happened in Washington, the partisanship, and that I think is the result of the gerrymandered districts, that these people shouldn’t even sit down and have dinner or lunch together, whereas 50 or so years ago, they rode to Washington together. That’s a bad omen.
Vinroot: Yeah, you’re right. But we all bemoan the fact that not many people vote. Well, why would you go vote if the election has already been essentially determined by who gets to vote in that particular district? It doesn’t encourage you to go. I know exactly what’s going to happen in Robert Pittenger’s district this fall. I know. It doesn’t matter. I know how it’s going to turn out. That’s good for me—he’s a Republican, I’m a Republican—but I know that’s not right.