On September 24, something unusual happened. Asheville City Council left their usual chambers in City Hall and held their meeting in the far roomier confines of the Civic Center ballroom. They were there to take a step many of them didn't want to take — reversing a state-imposed gerrymander — because an outraged public demanded it.
Locals had fought for months to get to this point. Last year, establishment Democrats and the far-right Republican-run legislature had teamed up to pass a law that would overhaul the city's elections in a whiter, more conservative direction. Previously, all of Asheville's Council members and mayor were elected citywide, a system known as “at-large” that — in our city's specific circumstances — local Black voters had used to gain the most representation on Council in over three decades.
Now, five Council members would be chosen from GOP-drawn districts intended to carve up the electorate and curb that power. Primaries that narrowed the field of candidates down (Asheville's local elections are non-partisan) were ended entirely. For good measure, the elections were delayed a whole year (Asheville normally would have had three of its six Council seats up this year, now they'll have to run in 2020).
Other local governments in North Carolina — Greensboro and Wake County — have fought similar gerrymanders of local elections. But despite ostensibly opposing the move, Asheville’s local elected officials took little action. At the start of this year, grassroots public pressure for the city to act began to build. Locals repeatedly pressed for action. They faced months of excuses and delays. First, Mayor Esther Manheimer claimed that the lack of a permanent city attorney was an obstacle to challenging the gerrymander law. Then her line was that the city was still considering its options (the Greensboro and Wake challenges emerged in weeks, even days). Finally, Manheimer went so far as to say that the city had “a shit legal case” and admitted she didn't want to fight.
But struggles can be clarifying. As the months continued, an ostensibly centrist Council member publicly turned coat and supported the GOP bill. But three Council members who had more vocally opposed it — including both Black Council members — finally formally called for its repeal.
“We're talking about an undemocratically elected general assembly trying to hoist their agenda on our city, our citizenry. To me that's unacceptable.”
By this summer, Council had to hold an information session and public forum on the issue. There, even the new city attorney, while playing up the costs of a legal battle, had to admit that they had the power to change their charter back to the old election and primary system and reverse much of the gerrymander. Locals kept pushing for them to do so. The Council delayed action so long that any chance of challenging the election delay vanished, but the gerrymander started to look less and less secure.
The stakes extended far past Asheville. Grassroots movements throughout the South have used local elections as a way to try to reduce harm and exert pressure, even when state governments remain far-right. Asheville raised the specter of a particularly evil bargain: centrists and establishment liberals working with GOP-dominated legislatures to keep out any pressure from the left by rigging the system in favor of the status quo.
'Sound like Jim Crow'
In early September, after pressure didn't let up, Council reluctantly voted to start the process to change the charter entirely, repealing the state-imposed districts and restoring the city's old primary system. While Council balked at a legal challenge (and thus gave themeselves another year in office), the state legislation hadn't stripped them of the ability to change the local election system, including reversing the gerrymander.
The issue is part of the larger political ferment roiling the city. Fights over hotel development, policing, and more have led to more locals turning their attention to City Hall in one of the country's fastest gentrifying cities. When locals have shown up to speak on such matters, cramped Council chambers helped local officials avoid too many of their critics massing in one place (most of the crowd ended up in overflow rooms on entirely different floors of the building).
Manheimer even frequently cited a fictional rule against clapping to shut down residents from making noise when it didn't suit the status quo. It took activists pointing out, from the podium in early September, that no such rule existed for that fiction to fall and city officials to finally stop trying to use police to intimidate locals for applauding criticisms of their actions.
On Sept. 24, Council for the first time moved the meeting to a larger venue due to public interest (a vote on a controversial hotel and on a year-long hotel moratorium were also on the agenda). The meeting would last nearly four hours.
“Once again the North Carolina General Assembly that was illegally elected by racially gerrymandered districts decided to tell our city how to run our districts,” Patrick Berger, a local resident, said. “We're talking about an undemocratically elected general assembly trying to hoist their agenda on our city, our citizenry. To me that's unacceptable.”
“I want to know what y'all have been doing for the last year?” Berger asked Council. No answer was forthcoming.
“The Black vote's already been decreasing due to gentrification, the other g word, and other policies that have been supported by the city,” Matilda Bliss, who'd been speaking against the gerrymander since January, said. “These districts will further decrease that power. Of course, this comes at a time when we have two Black Council members and the electorate is swinging left. This is not some kind of 'we want to be fair' move by the state. I'm glad folks are finally moving forward, but it's pretty late.”
“If you haven't heard from anyone that looks like me, you just ain't talking to them and they don't want to talk to you.”
The responses of some of Council's more centrist members to this tide of public pressure split two ways: defensiveness and outright petulance. In the former case, Manheimer now claimed that Council was against the gerrymander but had just been waiting for the General Assembly to get to a point in the legislative calendar where they wouldn't immediately retaliate against Asheville reversing the gerrymander. “This is chess, not checkers,” Manheimer claimed (failing to mention that this supposedly strategic maneuvering got her another year in office).
But the debate also saw displays of dismissiveness of Black voices that's historically marked Asheville's status quo politics. Both Black Council members, multiple civil rights activists and veterans have all spoken against the gerrymander. When a similar state gerrymander plan was put to locals in the 2017 election, 75 percent cast their votes against it and “we are the 75 percent” became a common rallying cry for gerrymandering opponents.
But the few (entirely white) members of the public speaking in support of the gerrymander had tried to claim the move was actually helping Black voters.
Council member Vijay Kapoor — who had supported the GOP gerrymander then later pushed a “compromise” that would add two at-large seats while keeping the gerrymandered districts — claimed that “we haven't really consulted the African-American community.”
In response to that Council member Keith Young said he'd finally had enough of Kapoor's “political puffery.”
“I'm the first Black man to sit up here in 25 years,” Young said. “The one thing I have been for my whole entire life and can't take away from me is that I'm a Black man. I was born and raised in this city.”
“As a candidate who people gave no chance of sitting in this seat, to knock on hundreds of doors until I wore out a pair of shoes, to speak with people in my community that I know and love, that they share their conversations with me,” Young continued. “If you haven't heard from anyone that looks like me, you just ain't talking to them and they don't want to talk to you.”
Kapoor burst out that Young's remarks were “disrespectful.”
Council member Sheneika Smith also shot back at Kapoor's “foolery,” noting that after years of exclusion, those pushing for electoral change had used the at-large system to get more representation, only to have the state legislature and local political bosses try to claw it back.
The fight over the gerrymander shows that determined public outrage can check an entrenched local political status quo.
“To answer your question Councilman Kapoor, they have spoken, it's called the referendum,” Smith said. “They already spoke, and they don't want a different system, they want the at-large system that's produced, consecutively, African-American candidates that they favor. Period.”
“To change a system in this part of the game, slicing it and dicing it any way you want is a detriment to our entire community, not just Black people but queer people, poor people, people who are dispersed throughout this entire city and don't have concentration in one area.”
The defenders of the gerrymander, she said, “sound like Jim Crow. You don't tell me where and when I can pick the candidates I want to run and speak for me.”
In many cities, at-large districts are used to deter Black voting representation, a talking point cited out of context by the (overwhelmingly white) supporters of the gerrymander. But in Asheville geography and the city's history of redlining flip the script. Black communities are scattered throughout the city. If voters in those communities, as happened in 2015 and 2017, rally behind specific causes and candidates they feel represent them, they can have a citywide impact on every race on the ballot.
It's not a coincidence that the gerrymander — crafted by the same legislature that had repeatedly targeted Black voters — came amid growing voter turnout and pressure around issues of gentrification and segregation.
At Council's next meeting, on Oct. 22, the vote to reverse the gerrymander and reinstate primaries passed 6-1, with only Kapoor voting against.
The next fight
Asheville's recent history has been marked by growing political pressure against gentrification and segregation and by locals mobilizing outside of official parties and structures. That's taken a lot of forms, from direct mutual aid efforts to pushes to oust particularly noxious officials to mobilizing during local elections.
But the environment's changed, vastly, from the lock on local politics the centrist establishment had for over a decade. Asheville's last police chief managed to maintain public support from Council and many in the local political and non-profit establishment, in spite of cracking down on peaceful protesters, surveilling civil rights groups and running a department with the worst racial disparities in traffic stop and search enforcement of any major city in the state.…. She still resigned last November after months of outrage from a broad section of locals, including Black and queer activists pushing for defunding the rapidly growing police department.
At the beginning of 2019, a year-long halt to hotel construction was dismissed as a wild left-wing idea. At the same meeting Council held the public hearing on reversing the gerrymander, they passed a hotel moratorium unanimously.
But this year's city budget opted to spend money on more cops, more consultants and more raises for high-level city staff while the public clamored for more funds to transit, housing and the environment.
While the gerrymander's reversed, Asheville's local elections have been thrown off course. Instead of happening this year, local elections will take place amid the frenzy of national and state primaries next year.
Filing will begin in December with a primary in March and a general election in November. The fights unleashed during the gerrymandering battle are already having a ripple effect. Just before Council's vote to reverse the gerrymander, Nicole Townsend — an outspoken opponent of gerrymandering and the city's metastasizing police department — has announced she's running for office.
The fight over the gerrymander shows that determined public outrage can check an entrenched local political status quo. It also shows that status quo willing to go to extreme lengths, including liberals allying with the far-right, to preserve itself. It's going to take a lot more than elections to end that.