County officials mixed on new maps

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Commissioner Mike Payment

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Days before state lawmakers will hold public hearings on proposed new legislative districts, some area county commissioners are expressing mixed views about the maps they've seen so far.

A number interviewed last week see a proposed 11-county 1st District in the draft state Senate map as possibly too large for one person to reasonably cover. Others, however, see it as an opportunity to forge new alliances with counties that previously were in other districts.

As for the draft state House map that divides area counties into three districts, some like the fact Pasquotank again is only in one district, while others like the fact Currituck is included in a new district with Dare. 

The new districts are required because the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled last year that the current maps drawn state legislative districts are illegal racial gerrymanders. The court has given lawmakers until Sept. 1 to draw new maps.  

According to the General Assembly's website, there will be public hearings on the maps across the state on Tuesday. The closest hearing for northeastern North Carolina residents will be at 4 p.m. at Beaufort County Community College in Washington. The public can also submit comments about the maps online at www.ncleg.net.

While the House and Senate redistricting committees have yet to formally propose maps, the draft maps they've posted online are still piquing public interest. Senate District 1 would swell from eight to 11 counties, representing all of northeastern North Carolina, but lose Beaufort County to balance out its population with other districts.

House District 1, meanwhile, would lose all of Currituck County, which would go to a four-county district including Dare, plus its portion of Pasquotank County. Pasquotank would join Hertford and Gates in what appears to be a new House District 5.

In practical effect, the maps would mean northeastern North Carolina could no longer be represented by Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort. As for the House, the state's five northeastern-most counties — Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden and Currituck — would be split among three districts instead of two. The draft maps have spurred current House District 1 Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, to suggest he'll run in the new Senate District 1 if it’s approved as currently drawn.

Camden, Currituck and Pasquotank commissioners have mixed feelings about the preliminary lines, based on interviews last week.

Camden Board of Commissioners Chairman Clayton Riggs, a Republican, said Friday he doesn't want to “second-guess” lawmakers, and said he had faith in Steinburg to look out for the area's interests.

Nevertheless, he did express concerns that adding three more counties to Senate District 1 could make it harder to represent Camden. Even in the current eight-county district, it's already difficult to schedule meetings with the district’s senator, he said.

Then there's the reality that 11 counties are going to have differing and even competing interests. Different industries, such as tourism, fishing, and agriculture matter more to some counties than others, he noted.

As for the proposed House District 1, Riggs said he feels there were benefits to keeping the five northeastern-most counties together. He said they have many shared interests, such as development of the U.S. 17/future Interstate-87 corridor.

“When one benefits, all benefit,” he said.

In Currituck, Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Mike Payment, a Republican, said he doesn’t have problems with the current district lines. Though not opposed to the new lines, he said an 11-county Senate District 1 would be “a lot of ground to cover.” Whoever holds that seat will need to understand their differing demographics and dedicate a lot of time to covering all of the territory, he said.

As for Currituck being in a different House district than Camden and Pasquotank, Payment said he sees pros and cons. Currituck is still very much a rural county like Camden and Pasquotank, but also shares some interests with Dare, he noted.

Payment also noted that, with Currituck poised for major growth in coming years, it will continue looking to its legislators for help with economic development.

Currituck Commissioner Mike Hall, a Republican, said there's always concern when a region's legislative representation changes — it will be a shame to lose both Cook and Steinburg, he said.

However, he said the 11-county Senate district could be a positive change, because it creates an opportunity to forge new alliances.

In Pasquotank, Commissioner Jeff Dixon, a Democrat, also sees pros and cons in the draft maps.

“I agree with taking Beaufort County out of the Senate district,” Dixon said. “There's no similarity between Beaufort and Pasquotank County.”

Dixon, notably, has been a strong critic of Cook's, following Cook's opposition to the Amazon wind farm in Pasquotank.

However, Dixon also noted the new Senate district would include numerous counties north and south of the Albemarle Sound. He said their needs are different — Pasquotank and other northern counties have a greater focus economic development — and that could make it harder to represent the entire area.

As for the new House district, Dixon said it would be ideal to keep Pasquotank, Camden, Currituck, Perquimans and Chowan together, but he welcomed the new maps for at least putting Pasquotank entirely in one district.

Whatever the final maps look like, Dixon also said he hopes lawmakers will stop gerrymandering and work in a bipartisan way to “do what helps counties, not political parties.”

Pasquotank Commissioner Lloyd Griffin, a Democrat, also expressed concerns about the counties in an 11-county Senate district having competing interests. He also expressed concerns the maps didn't make districts compact enough — one of several basic considerations in redistricting.

Griffin also said he doesn’t think Pasquotank has much in common with Gates or Hertford counties, and questioned if the current representative of Gates and Hertford — state Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford —would visit Pasquotank enough.

Pasquotank Commissioner Bill Sterritt, a Democrat, welcomed the possibility of Steinburg running for the seat in an 11-county Senate District 1. He said Steinburg has been very supportive of Pasquotank and predicted he would be “well-received” if he ran for Senate.

Asked if an 11-county district would spread a senator too thinly, Sterritt disagreed. However, he said anyone running to be a state lawmaker has to realize it was a “full-time job.”

As for the new House district that would include Pasquotank, Sterritt said it would be “wonderful” to keep Pasquotank, Camden and Currituck in the same district, but described that as secondary to the quality of the lawmaker serving the county.

Whatever the final lines look like, Sterritt also called for lawmakers to “do away with districts controlled by Republicans,” and make the new districts as even as possible between the political parties.