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New congressional maps in North Carolina will stand for 2020, court rules

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) — By Brian Murphy and Will Doran The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Dec. 02-- WASHINGTON-The new congressional maps passed by North Carolina state lawmakers last month can stand for the 2020 election, a three-judge panel ruled Monday.

The previous maps gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under the new maps, Democrats are expected to pick up two seats, cutting it down to an 8-5 Republican edge.

Democrats, however, had said the new maps still weren't fair and needed to be redrawn again. But the judges hearing the case-two Democrats and one Republican-unanimously disagreed.

"The net result is the grievous and flawed 2016 map has been replaced," Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said, reading from their ruling Monday afternoon.

This case was only over U.S. House districts. A separate lawsuit, over the legislative districts for the state's 120 North Carolina House and 50 North Carolina Senate seats, also recently ended. It was overseen by the same judges and had a similar ending. In both cases, Democrats got the old Republican-drawn maps thrown out as unconstitutional, but then failed in later efforts to change the new maps the Legislature drew as replacements.

On Monday the judges said that while there are some still-unanswered questions about the new congressional maps and how fair they may be, there simply isn't enough time to delve into those questions. A new congressional map will be drawn in 2022 after the U.S. Census. North Carolina is expected to get a 14th U.S. House seat.

Within just two weeks, if there weren't maps in place, the state would have had to move the primary elections for Congress. Lawyers for the Republican defendants said that would have led to lower voter turnout and extra costs for local governments, and the judges later said avoiding such a delay was their primary concern. Lawyers for the Democrats could appeal but said Monday they're still weighing their options.

The judges also applauded the Republican-led General Assembly for a level of transparency during redistricting-which the judges themselves ordered-that has never before been seen in this state. Back-room deals dominated in the past.

"The citizens of North Carolina, for the first time, were witnesses to the drafting of their voting districts," Ridgeway said. The ruling went on to specify that the public could watch and comment in real time, since the maps "weren't drawn in the basement of a political operative's home."

That was a reference to Tom Hofeller, the late GOP gerrymandering strategist who drew multiple versions of maps for North Carolina starting in 2011, which have now since been ruled unconstitutional. Republican lawmakers had tried in vain to keep Hofeller's files secret, during the lawsuit over the legislative districts.

The anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause North Carolina was a plaintiff in the lawsuit over the legislative lines, not the congressional lines, but the group's executive director, Bob Phillips, was in court Monday to watch nevertheless. He said he will continue to push for more permanent reforms at the Legislature, so that future districts can be drawn with "much more robust public input" and potentially avoid so many legal challenges.

"I think there's a lot of room for improvement on transparency," Phillips said. "Obviously reform in our mind means somebody else besides the lawmakers drawing it."

It's unclear whether Republican lawmakers will embrace such reforms, although a few have endorsed ideas for reform. GOP leaders said Monday they're glad the court process appears to finally be over. The lines for both the congressional and legislative maps have now been redrawn to replace unconstitutional maps that were themselves replacements for different unconstitutional maps Republicans passed in 2011.

"Now that a unanimous, bipartisan court has denied the plaintiffs' last-minute challenge to the 2019 congressional map and the candidate filing period is open and underway, we can finally put this decade of relentless litigation behind us," said Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County, a top redistricting leader.

Democrats, however, saw it differently.

"North Carolina Republicans yet again run out the clock on fair maps, denying justice to North Carolina voters and forcing our state to go another election using undemocratic district lines," North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said.

Candidates were announcing congressional runs even before the ruling-particularly in the two districts that are expected to swing toward Democrats under the Legislature's new map.

Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state lawmaker who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2016, filed a statement of candidacy with federal election officials to run in the 2nd District.

The district, currently represented by Republican Rep. George Holding, will be a Wake County-only district under the maps passed by the Legislature and is likely to be a Democratic pick-up.

Three Democrats already announced campaigns for the seat, but that was before the districts were redrawn. Retired Marine Scott Cooper, Wake County Public Schools board member Monika Johnson-Hostler and Open Table United Methodist Church pastor Jason Butler have been in the race for several months.

Holding has not committed to running again.

The 6th District, currently represented by Republican Rep. Mark Walker, has been reconfigured to include all of Guilford County and part of Forsyth County.

Kathy Manning, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Ted Budd in the 13th District in 2018, announced on Twitter that she is running.

"After lots of careful consideration I'm excited to say that I'm in," Manning tweeted.

Democrat Angela Flynn, the director of liturgy and music at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, has been campaigning in the district. She said on Twitter that she is "carefully considering options."

Walker said he will run for another term, but has not said what district he will run in. The new map splits his current congressional district among several districts, including the 10th and the 13th.

"From the pulpit to the halls of Congress, I have always sought the counsel of others as I strive towards service. This is no different. Filing will remain open until December 20th and I feel no pressure to rush a decision," Walker said in a statement Monday.

Democrat Moe Davis, a retired Air Force Colonel and former Guantanamo Bay chief prosecutor, announced he is running in the 11th District. The district is currently represented by Republican Mark Meadows. Davis is from Asheville, which is fully contained in the 11th District under the new maps. The city is split in the current map. Davis became a critic of the process used by the Obama administration to try terrorists.

"Western North Carolina ranks high in poverty and low in health care coverage and educational achievement. Mark Meadows has spent four terms in Congress focusing solely on his own agenda and ignoring his constituents," Davis said in a statement.

It will be a crowded primary for the chance to potentially take on Meadows. Besides Davis, the district's 2018 Democratic nominee Phillip Price and Steve Woodsmall, who finished second to Price in 2018, are both running. So is Michael O'Shea, a professional musician from Henderson County who describes himself as a "millennial progressive."

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Meadows, the former chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has been an outspoken defender of President Donald Trump throughout his term and especially on impeachment. He is one of the most visible members of the House.

Even before the map was finalized, most of the incumbents announced that they would seek reelection in 2020. Democratic Reps. Alma Adams, David Price and GK Butterfield and Republicans Virginia Foxx, Dan Bishop, Greg Murphy, Budd, Patrick McHenry, David Rouzer and Richard Hudson have indicated they plan to run.

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