There has been a great deal of understandable celebrating in recent days in the aftermath of the Sept. 3 ruling by a bipartisan panel of Superior Court judges that struck down North Carolina’s state legislative maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.
Across the state and nation, good government and civil rights advocates have welcomed the decision as a bellwether victory. Even former President Obama took to Twitter to hail the ruling “a big win for North Carolina — and for all of us.”
Unfortunately, while the grounds for celebration are clearly plentiful, there are still many miles to travel in this struggle and the end result is still far from certain. Caring and thinking people were reminded of this hard reality last Friday when the two sides in the Common Cause v. Lewis litigation submitted their recommendations for court-appointed “referees” to oversee map-drawing that will take place in the coming days pursuant to last week’s ruling.
While plaintiffs made the eminently reasonable suggestion that the court appoint Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily, legislative defendants made a truly remarkable and outrageous proposal. They suggested the court select a pair of individuals: retired General Assembly staffer and longtime state government insider Gerry Cohen and — we are not making this up — Art Pope.
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at such a suggestion.
While Cohen is a fine and honorable man, he has no experience in such a role and was reportedly surprised to learn he’d been suggested. He would also bring decades of decidedly mixed baggage to the job, given that he spent decades serving as an attorney who worked for (and held the confidences of) lawmakers of both parties.
And Pope? Well, it’s hard to conceive of a less unbiased or more inappropriate individual in the state for such a role. Consider the following “attributes” Pope would bring to the job:
Pope, the owner of a network of lower rung retail stores, has, for decades, been the leading funder of a network of hard-right advocacy, lobbying and propaganda organizations. These groups have, quite literally, spearheaded an effort to roll back decades of progress in North Carolina in dozens of fields — from school integration to reproductive freedom; from the university system to voting rights; from gun violence prevention to tax fairness; from the climate crisis to the cause of LGBTQ equality.
He is a fierce partisan, a former state lawmaker and leader of state House Republicans and a former GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.
When Pat McCrory was elected governor in 2012, he immediately named Pope as state budget director and chief architect of an austerity budget that has, through several subsequent reiterations, crippled countless state structures and systems.
Pope has been deeply immersed in the Republican gerrymandering machine for years. He was in the room — literally — when dark money-funded groups worked behind the scenes with Republican legislators and operatives in 2010 to draw the redistricting maps which led to the party’s sweep of state and federal legislative races that year.
Pope is, in other words, one of the chief forces behind the regressive and extremist policies that have beset our state in recent years and made it a frequent national laughingstock.
And while it seems extremely farfetched that the court would ever select Pope to oversee the redistricting process as a supposedly “impartial” referee, the very fact that Republican defendants suggested him makes it clear that they have no intention of throwing in the towel in their effort to fashion maps that abet their partisan objectives.
This fact will be important for all observers and participants — lawmakers, journalists, advocates, activists — to keep in mind as the General Assembly goes about the business of passing new maps pursuant to the Superior Court’s order and, perhaps, considering legislation that would reform the redistricting process itself.
As noted in this space a few weeks back (a fact that makes the idea of his appointment even more absurd), Pope has also been involved this year in the development of a supposedly bipartisan, but highly questionable plan to remake the state redistricting process that would delegate oversight authority to the Legislative Services Office — an office that is headed by his longtime conservative ally in state politics, Paul Coble.
The bottom line: If Art Pope is still trying to insert himself into the redistricting process, North Carolinians can rest assured that the fight to bring fair maps to the state is far from over, and won’t be over until he is fully relegated to the sidelines.