By the time a crowd of people filed into Asheville’s Civic Center ballroom on July 2 to lambast city officials about their refusal to fight a racist gerrymander of local elections, they had had enough.
“If folks can't even fight developers, can they fight the state?” Nicole Townsend, a local activist and organizer with Southerners on New Ground, told Council during public comment. “We can't pretend districts aren't about lessening the opportunities for Black and brown people to serve as elected officials. In fact, the same representatives that are fighting for districting also have their hands in the pot with Voter ID, which we know is racist."
“Are we really going to turn away from a fight worthy of our people because it's messy, it's complicated, it's hard? If that's the case, you should step down from your seats.”
The issue at hand was a 2018 state law that forced Asheville to delay local elections by a year and replaced the city’s at-large voting system with districts designed to weaken Black voting power. Instead of fighting the law, as other North Carolina cities have successfully done in the face of similar attacks, Asheville officials have idled.
At the July 2 City Council meeting, locals endured a lengthy presentation by the city attorney, tilted to present a grim picture of the city's legal options. Even though the meeting was scheduled just two days before a holiday, dozens of people still showed up. During public comment, speakers repeatedly said “I'm part of the 75 percent,” referring to a similar state districting scheme put before voters—and rejected by three quarters of them.
Carol Rogoff Halstrom, a veteran of the '60s civil rights movement, offered Council a stark warning.
“You're obligated, frankly, at a time when our federal government [and] our state government are acting in ways that increasingly seem to endanger democracy, that we as a city not become complicit,” she said.
It was a telling moment in a struggle that's seen some “progressive” elected officials de facto acquiesce to a far-right agenda, a devil's bargain based around a common fear of growing grassroots movements against segregation and gentrification.
That complicity is already having an effect. This year, it has stripped the people of Asheville of their right to elect three Council seats, and several key Council votes have tilted in a direction hard to imagine if those members were facing voters.
But after July 2, the silence from City Hall continued.
Drawing battle lines
The far-right North Carolina legislature's attempts to gerrymander Asheville's local elections started after the city’s 2015 local elections, which ended two years of an all-white Council and saw the wipeout of avowedly conservative candidates (one of whom showed up at the July 2 hearing telling Council to “take your medicine” and not fight the gerrymander.)
The 2017 elections saw centrist council members fighting for their political lives and the election of a second Black council member—the most in City Hall in over three decades—as the state pushed harder to try to rig local elections in their favor.
In her remarks, Townsend noted that the election of Sheneika Smith, the second Black council member, would have been far more difficult under the new district system.
In 2018, GOP state Sen. Chuck Edwards got key help from establishment Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn, whose district covers most of Asheville; she signed on to Edwards’ gerrymandering bill. The legislation required that five of Asheville's Council members be elected from state-drawn districts, and Van Duyn added a provision forcing the city to delay elections for a year. It represented a troubling political alliance between the far-right and supposed centrists, brought together by a fear of the increasingly left-leaning tilt of the Asheville electorate. For good measure, the bill also ended the city's primaries.
Asheville's previous system allowed voters to cast their ballots in a nonpartisan election for the mayor and all six Council members citywide, a method known as “at-large.”
In many places, at-large elections can actually produce a more conservative and segregated result than district systems. But in Asheville, geography and a history of redlining have flipped the script. Black neighborhoods like Burton Street, Southside, and Shiloh are scattered around different parts of the city. Under the at-large system, if Black voters across the city felt particular candidates reflected their needs, they could vote for all of them. That happened in the last two local elections, when Black voting power combined with broad anger against gentrification and the right-wing tilt of the City Hall bureaucracy started to shake the local political order.
It was a telling moment in a struggle that's seen some “progressive” elected officials de facto acquiesce to a far-right agenda.
Other local governments that have faced similar state legislation fought back quickly, and won. Greensboro and Wake County saw successful lawsuits against state gerrymanders. In both cases, the state-imposed systems were suspended, and elections proceeded as before while the case was decided.
But as 2018 turned into 2019, Asheville City Council did nothing. In January, locals started to show up at Council meetings to directly push for action. Throughout the spring and summer, that pressure ramped up. After Mayor Esther Manheimer claimed on an online political forum that the city had “a shitty [legal] case,” a petition calling on Council to take action quickly gathered over 500 signatures. With public outcry mounting, three councilmembers—Smith, Brian Haynes and Keith Young—finally broke their silence and publicly called for Council to fight the gerrymander.
Some anti-gerrymandering locals noted that the action was welcome, but should have happened months earlier. Because the city delayed things for so long, the public had lost their opportunity to have their scheduled election this year.
This is made all the more surprising by the fact that the city could actually undo much of the bill themselves. The state legislation hadn't taken away the city government's right to change its own charter. The City Council could change the charter back, throwing out districts and reinstating primaries (the election year change would have to be undone by a lawsuit).
In 2018, all council members had initially made public statements condemning the gerrymander legislation. But as public outcry at their inaction increased, one revealed that his true allegiances lay elsewhere. In response to the petition and his colleagues speaking up, Council member Vijay Kapoor declared that he now supported the GOP-imposed gerrymander.
When he ran as a centrist in 2017, Kapoor had vocally opposed the idea of the state redrawing local elections. But in office he'd taken a more conservative turn, pushing back against NAACP policing reforms, speaking in favor of an unpopular wave of hotels, opposing a $15 an hour wage for city workers, and more.
Now, drawing on the outdated data used by the GOP legislators to draw the districts, he claimed they weren't really a gerrymander and that he felt the state-imposed system was fair. On July 2, he later claimed he'd favor a “compromise” that added two at-large seats.
There may be some self-preservation in that sudden flip-flop. Kapoor's increasingly right-wing positions haven't gone over well in left-leaning Asheville, and it's unlikely he'd win citywide re-election.
Do nothing and ignore the public
While the fight over the gerrymander continues, the measure has already impacted local politics and pushed it in a less accountable direction.
While Asheville's local government has often taken a more conservative approach than the populace demanded, especially as gentrification has become more brutal and widespread, in election years there was at least some real pressure. In 2015, for example, the city finally enacted an actual living wage for its workers. In 2017, steps to rein in hotels and Airbnbs ramped up, as did an attempt to provide long overdue funds for affordable housing and infrastructure.
Right now an entire city is wondering when there will be another election, and what that would even look like.
But 2019 hasn't just seen the loss of an election, it's given a window into what Asheville's officials will do without one looming over their head. This year's annual budget prompted a wide-ranging outcry. Despite a record revenue year, senior city staff prioritized hiring consultants, ramping up the Asheville Police Department for the third year in a row (the APD has some of the worst racial disparities in its enforcement in North Carolina) and, not surprisingly, giving more raises to senior city staff.
Locals instead pushed for long overdue funding for the transit system (which has major issues due to a lack of maintenance and adequate service), tree protection (Asheville is rapidly losing its tree canopy, causing major environmental issues), a $15 an hour wage for city workers, and real funds to deal with major equity issues. They got none of it. Even council members who had expressed concern about those issues fell in line behind a status quo budget and passed it unanimously, something that would have been unimaginable with an election on the way.
That same lack of pressure was evident in a highly controversial decision to allow the historic Flatiron building to be turned into a luxury hotel. The proposal broke many of the city's own rules, but officials allowed it anyway. Developers will kick out over 70 local businesses and organizations from one of the last non-gentry office spaces in downtown and replace them with a hotel across from two other upscale hotels. The proposal passed 4-3. Council member Julie Mayfield, who cast the deciding vote, would have been up for election this year if it hadn't been for the state's intervention.
When public pressure pushed Council to finally address the issue of the gerrymander more publicly on July 2, even their own legal staff had to admit that much of the power to undo major parts of the legislation was in their hands. During the meeting, three council members publicly committed to taking action, and even mulled over the details of a charter change. So, many locals expected to see the first step in a city charter change on the agenda for the July 23 Council meeting.
But none appeared. At the meeting, no Council member directly addressed it, or even mentioned future action. This did not go unnoticed. Speakers in public comment noted that locals wanted some clarity from the city, including whether they would have to pursue their own efforts to tackle the legislation through lawsuit and referendum.
Right now an entire city is wondering when there will be another election, and what that would even look like. Local activist Matilda Bliss excoriated Council that “now is not the time to not be courageous” and noted that Ashevillians were keenly aware of their inaction on even the most basic reforms, like reining in the APD or passing non-discrimination ordinances.
Asheville's case—of locals using elections to try to push back against segregation and gentrification reflects concerns throughout the South. In cities from Jackson, Miss. to Charlottesville Southerners have increasingly fought the status quo in local politics through movements inside and outside local government. If the response of Asheville's progressive elected officials spreads—cooperate with the far-right to give yourself more time in office, don't fight a gerrymander, pass widely hated measures—we'll be far from the only place to suffer the consequences.
On July 23, even the council members who had called for action against the gerrymander didn't speak up. After public comment ended, Council went into closed session to discuss a number of issues, including a possible lawsuit against the gerrymander. Will they take action? Once again, all we hear is silence. It's a silence the whole region should witness.