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North Carolina judges throw out current congressional map

RALEIGH — North Carolina judges on Monday blocked the state’s congressional map from being used in the 2020 elections, ruling that voters had a strong likelihood of winning a lawsuit that argued Republicans unlawfully manipulated district lines for partisan gain.

The panel of three Superior Court judges issued a preliminary injunction preventing elections under the district lines, starting with the March 3 primary.

The judges halted the use of these districts less than two months after they struck down state House and Senate districts. There they found extreme political manipulation of the lines similar to what voters suing over the congressional map also say occurred.

In the ruling Monday, the judges — Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton and Joseph Crosswhite — agreed that “there is a substantial likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this action by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the 2016 congressional districts are extreme partisan gerrymanders” in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

The judges gave no date by which a new map must be drawn, but suggested lawmakers could redraw them on their own quickly to ensure congressional primaries be held as scheduled. The State Board of Elections has said lines needed to be finalized by Dec. 15.

“The court respectfully urges the General Assembly to adopt an expeditious process,” the judges wrote.

Republican state legislators made plain when they drew that map that the lines were designed to help the GOP retain 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats, but argued such strategies weren’t unlawful. Republican defendants in the lawsuit and three sitting GOP U.S. House members opposed the injunction request.

The judges’ ruling, which could be appealed, would likely lead to a map with more competitive districts for the November race — making it more difficult for national Republicans to retake control of the U.S. House.

The lawsuit is being bankrolled by a national Democratic group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

Democratic and unaffiliated voters who sued Sept. 27 sought the injunction before any trial is held on their partisan gerrymandering claims. They said the case was extremely similar to a successful lawsuit over state legislative districts.

The same three judges hearing the congressional case ruled in that case just two months ago, finding Republicans performed extreme political manipulation in those maps to ensure they could hold majorities in almost any political environment. Republicans were ordered to redraw those lines. Also Monday, the judges issued a separate ruling in the legislative case, upholding all of the changes that the General Assembly made to several dozen state House and Senate districts. The plaintiffs who sued there had wanted a third-party expert to step in and rework 19 House districts.

In the current congressional lawsuit, the plaintiffs’ attorneys convinced the judges that evidence already accumulated from separate federal litigation challenging the congressional lines shows they are likely to succeed in the state case.

The federal case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 in June that federal courts would not get involved in partisan redistricting claims. But the justices left the door open for state courts to intervene.

Opponents of the current congressional map have latched on to the comment made by state Rep. David Lewis during the 2016 remapping. Lewis said at the time he was proposing a 10-3 map “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” Lewis said later he was joking.

Attorneys for Lewis and other Republican lawmakers who are defendants in the state congressional lawsuit case reject the plaintiffs’ partisan gerrymandering claims. They told the judges it was too late to make congressional map changes, since candidate filing begins in early December and that facts in the case were not settled. Changes now, the GOP’s lawyers said, would result in voter confusion and extremely low turnout should the primary have to be delayed.

Former Sen. Kay Hagan dies at 66

GREENSBORO — Keith Holliday says he saw the true measure of Kay Hagan’s character at a low point in her career.

Holliday, Greensboro’s mayor while Hagan served in the state Senate, called her the “go-to” person whenever the city had needs in Raleigh. He served his last year as mayor in 2007, a year before Hagan was elected to the U.S. Senate. But they remained close as he pursued a career first with Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre and later as a state political appointee.

But he’ll always remember Hagan, a Democrat who died Monday at 66, for how she handled her defeat by now-Sen. Thom Tillis in 2014.

“I remember seeing her for the first time after the loss of the election,” Holliday said Monday. “You would’ve never thought she lost. She was happy and encouraging and gave me a big hug. And I remember saying, ‘I am so sorry.’ She immediately came back and said she had plenty of mission ahead and plenty of things she was going to do to serve the public — it was really so inspiring.”

Hagan, who died at her Greensboro home of encephalitis she contracted from a tick bite in late 2016, inspired many people who saw her in recent months at public events, always smiling from her wheelchair, unable to speak but clearly connecting with people in other ways, Holliday said.

“She had that humble mindset and persona that made people feel comfortable — she could talk about everything from garbage issues to foreign affairs,” he added.

Hagan and her husband, Chip, appeared last week at ArtsGreensboro’s campaign launch for its annual ArtsFund drive. They had agreed to serve as honorary co-chairs for the campaign.

She sat in a wheelchair nearby, as Chip Hagan addressed the crowd about their love and support for the arts.

Laura Way, president and chief executive officer of ArtsGreensboro, was there.

“I am so grateful that I got to see Kay one more time at Tuesday’s ArtsFund launch,” Way said Monday. “I looked into her eyes that evening and I sensed she was happy to be there. I am so sad for the entire Hagan family and for all of us. Kay Hagan was a force of nature. She leaves a legacy of public service, compassion and love for her family and community.”

Hagan was seen in public as late as Sunday in Durham at a fundraiser for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate.

Hagan’s family said in a statement Monday, “We already miss her humor and spirit as the hub of our family, a role she loved more than anything. Nobody could light up a room and make people feel welcome like Kay.”

Biden said Monday, “She was a champion for North Carolina and a fierce defender of all its citizens. She stood for women’s rights and marriage equality, not because it was politically popular, but because it was right.”

Hagan was born in Shelby on May 26, 1953. She earned her undergraduate degree from Florida State University in 1975, then earned a law degree from Wake Forest University three years later.

For 10 years, Hagan worked for NationsBank, which was to become Bank of America, where she became a vice president in the estates and trust division. After being a stay-at-home mother, the niece of former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles launched her own political career and won a seat as a Democrat in the North Carolina Senate in 1998.

Ten years later, Hagan sought and won the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Elizabeth Dole.

Although she initially showed reluctance to lend her support, Hagan backed the Affordable Care Act pushed by President Barack Obama.

Obama said in a statement: “As President, I deeply appreciated her reasoned, pragmatic voice, whether we were working together to pass the Affordable Care Act, reform Wall Street, support working families or just make Americans’ lives a little better. Her record is one all public servants would do well to follow, and her perspective is one we’ll sorely miss.”

Hagan also worked to limit payday lending, continuing the work she began as a state senator.

And she wasn’t afraid to go directly to places in her home state to find ways to fix problems, said Kevin Baker, the executive director of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority.

During her first year as a U.S. senator, Baker invited Hagan to come to the airport to see for herself the outdated control tower that Piedmont Triad International Airport had coped with for decades.

“Our control tower had been languishing, waiting for federal funding for years and years,” Baker said. “She came out on a Friday afternoon at the end of the day. She recognized right away there was a problem, and she made it a goal to find a solution to our problem. That night you could tell that she saw the real need for it and she was going to get into the fight with us.”

Nearly five years after her defeat and more than two years after she fell ill, Hagan made one of her final public appearances in June at the groundbreaking for the airport’s new $60 million control tower, secured in part through her efforts.

“Kay was a fierce advocate for North Carolina, and she represented our state with courage and grace her entire career. She made it a mission to inspire young people — especially young girls — to enter public service, and she served as a role model to so many,” said Gov. Roy Cooper, who served in the state Senate with Hagan.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Hagan worked diligently for the state and the people she loved.

“In our time as Senate colleagues, we worked across the aisle together frequently on issues that we both knew would determine what type of country our children would inherit, from conservation to our common defense. She tackled everything she did with a passion and a sense of humor that will be missed,” Burr said in a statement.

Tillis said in a statement: “Susan and I are absolutely heartbroken by Senator Kay Hagan’s sudden passing and extend our condolences and prayers to her loving family and many friends. We join all North Carolinians in remembering her dedicated and distinguished record of public service to our state & nation.”

Other former Senate colleagues also mourned her passing. Early in her days in Washington, Hagan became friends with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who is now running for president.

Klobuchar said Monday in a tweet: “She was one bright yellow ray of sunshine for everyone she touched — the Senate, her beloved state of NC, her friends. As she struggled the last few years, Chip & their kids were always at her side. Look up at the sun & think of Kay today.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-Greensboro, said in a news release, “Sen. Hagan was dedicated to serving North Carolinians and especially to the men and women of the Armed Forces in America’s most military-friendly state. Chip has exemplified the devotion, love and care that every husband should aspire to.”

In March 2011, Hagan sat on a congressional panel that questioned Army Secretary John McHugh regarding the unexplained deaths of 12 infants at Fort Bragg dating back to 2007. She also pushed for the release of documents pertaining to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

Hagan supported raising the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes from 39 cents to $1 per pack, noting that while she backed using the money to fund an expansion of a children’s health program, she was concerned about the impact the tax would have on jobs at home.

Her love of the arts, and her support of Greensboro’s arts community along with her husband, came naturally.

Kay Hagan majored in ballet in college, while Chip Hagan’s interest stems from music. They met in law school at Wake Forest University.

The couple became involved in Greensboro Ballet and other organizations that the ArtsFund helps to support.

“We felt like we had an opportunity to really celebrate this plethora of wonderful things that provide us with artistic inspiration here in Greensboro,” Chip Hagan said.

In December 2016, Kay Hagan was in Washington when she fell ill and was admitted to a hospital with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Her family said later that the condition was caused by Powassan virus, transmitted to people by ticks.

She was hospitalized at an Atlanta rehabilitation hospital for about six months before beginning outpatient treatment.

Chip Hagan said she continued with physical therapy well into this year. “She is a very — I won’t say stubborn — but a very determined person, and she is working very hard to try to improve the situation,” he said in June.

Hagan is also survived by three children: Jeanette Hagan, Tilden Hagan and Carrie Hagan Stewart. Information about funeral arrangements was not immediately available.

Holliday said Hagan died too young.

“It’s been a slow painful decline,” Holliday said. “I feel so bad for Chip and the family. ... We lost a good one.”

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Nonprofit and law enforcement partnership needed to fight human trafficking, U.S. House subcommittee learns at Greensboro meeting

GREENSBORO — At its Monday morning hearing in Greensboro, a U.S. House subcommittee learned that the only effective way to combat human trafficking involves close cooperation between police investigators and the nonprofit groups that aid trafficking victims.

The Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism that includes Greensboro Congressman Mark Walker as its lead Republican met for about 80 minutes, gathering testimony from four witnesses about the need for cooperation between police at all levels of government and so called “nongovernmental organizations.”

“Partnership and collaboration is the only way you can investigate this crime,” Special Agent Carl Wall II of Raleigh told the panel that consisted of Walker and Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y. committee chairman. “This crime is like no other.”

Wall, who heads the State Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking unit, told the congressmen that nonprofit groups both alert agencies to victims and provide essential services that help those victims break free of enslavement or other forms of servitude.

Walker said the hearing, which began shortly after 9 a.m., was the first such congressional proceeding hosted by the Greensboro area since 1921. It was held in the Old County Courthouse in the Guilford County Board of Commissioners’ meeting room.

The event was an official field hearing even though only Walker and Rose were present. A third subcommittee member, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., had hoped to attend but was unable to make it.

Walker noted that in 2018 alone nearly 11,000 cases of human trafficking were reported to a prominent national hotline.

“The vast majority of them related to sex trafficking and the victims are women and girls,” Walker said. “As legislators we know there’s more that needs to be done. ... This problem is bigger than any one jurisdiction’s resources.”

The crime of human trafficking includes the exploitation of people either for commercial sex or for their work in low-paying jobs in the underground economy.

Much of human trafficking’s underhanded dealings take place on the internet at dozens of websites that predators use to attract both victims and customers, witnesses said.

Rose said he was stunned by Wall’s comment that a search of one website turned up 400,000 advertisements, invitations and other communication “specific to North Carolina.”

“An incredibly striking number,” Rose said.

Federal agent Ronnie Martinez testified that many of the various websites’ computer servers are located outside of the United States to put distance between themselves and domestic law enforcement agencies.

“The internet provides anonymity to attract victims and sell their product,” said Martinez, special agent for homeland security investigations in the Charlotte office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Col. Aundrea Azelton of the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office told the panel that in one human trafficking investigation, she had subpoenaed information from internet giant Google about a suspicious online account.

“I waited for months and months with no response,” Azelton said.

“Google did not take the time to respond to you?” Rose asked.

“That’s the way it appeared,” Azelton said.

She and the other witnesses told Walker and Rose that another aspect of the problem stems from law enforcement personnel not being trained to recognize human trafficking. They said officers arrest someone on prostitution charges, for example, without realizing the arrested person’s strings are being pulled by a human trafficker behind the scene.

North Carolina consistently ranks among the nation’s top 10 states for reported cases of human trafficking because of factors such as its extensive highway system, large military bases with transient populations, and an economy that relies on agriculture and other businesses that need cheap labor.

In recent years, the state has improved its grade for responding to the problem from a “D” in 2011 to last year’s “A” in annual rankings by the watchdog group Shared Hope International.

But witness Christine Shaw Long said that state and local officials still have room for improvement to recognize and respond to human trafficking.

“I agree we’re still in a learning mode,” said Long, executive director of the N.C. Human Trafficking Commission, which tracks and promotes statewide efforts to combat the problem.

Walker, who has held North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District seat since 2013, said it was unjust that victims of sex trafficking get arrested on serious charges while their illicit customers receive slaps on the wrist.

“It’s a misdemeanor,” Wall said of the charge a customer usually faces. “He’s going to get a ticket and he’s going to walk away.”

Even though it was only Guilford County’s second such congressional event in nearly a century, the hearing did not attract an overflow crowd.

Guilford Board of Commissioners chairman Alan Branson was in the audience with two colleagues, his fellow Republican commissioner Jeff Phillips and Democrat Kay Cashion.

The hearing also drew leaders from local nonprofits and other groups on the front lines of helping victims of human trafficking, such as the Family Justice Center and World Relief Triad.

Family Justice Center director Catherine Johnson said her group is part of a task force that also includes the local Children’s Advocacy Center, plus Greensboro and High Point police.

“If someone makes a report, those resources are working together to provide victim services, law enforcement investigation and criminal prosecution,” Johnson said.