After a brief absence, the “Wilmington notch” is back. The new Senate district map once again carves out one section of downtown Wilmington, lumping it into heavily Republican Brunswick County rather than the rest of the city. 

The notch was included in the 2012-2018 elections. Under the new map ratified Wednesday afternoon, voters in the notch will be designated to Senate District 8, served by longtime Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, instead of the much-more competitive Senate District 7 that Republican Sen. Michael Lee currently represents. 

Lee’s seat has been hard-fought in recent years. He won easily in 2014 and 2016, but in 2018 Democrat Harper Peterson claimed it by just 231 votes. Lee then took it back in a close rematch by just one percentage point difference in 2020. 

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly have been working on new legislative boundaries for the 2024 state and federal elections over the last month, and released the drafts last week. Analysts have been dissecting just how gerrymandered the new districts are.

“The Wilmington notch is back with a vengeance,” Western Carolina University Professor of Political Science & Public Affairs Chris Cooper told the Dive. It was among the five big takeaways he wrote about earlier this week for The Assembly

The state constitution requires counties to be kept intact in legislative mapmaking when possible, but New Hanover County’s population is too large to fit into a single Senate district, so some portion has to be excluded. “The question is which portion,” Cooper said

Mapmakers in 2011 and again this month chose to concentrate the cut to a small area of downtown Wilmington around Dawson Street.

It includes six of the seven most-Democratic-leaning precincts in the county, two of which have the county’s highest proportion of Black voters. “It would be hard to find a better way to tilt the scales towards a Republican victory in [Senate District 7] than to remove those specific precincts,” Cooper said.

In 2019, a Wake County Superior Court panel ruled the Wilmington notch was among 28 unconstitutionally partisan gerrymandered districts. The court ruled “the clear intent and effect of this decision was to waste the votes” of the notch’s Democratic-leaning area by putting them in a heavily Republican district across the river, and ordered lawmakers to draw new maps for the 2020 election. 

The notch was gone for that election, but a legal challenge to the 2021 maps made it to the U.S. Supreme Court this summer. The state used court-drawn maps in the 2022 election, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state courts could check lawmakers’ mapmaking.

Experts expect more legal challenges this year, but the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court is not likely to be sympathetic.

Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, who serves would-be notch voters in the state House, said pairing downtown Wilmington with rural Brunswick County isn’t fair. Mapmakers must consider making redistricting groupings based on “communities of interest,” and Butler said any claim that these two areas meet that standard strains credulity.

“Map drawing should not be left to legislators. They have an inherent bias that dilutes votes and creates a result that is not reflective of the true will of the people,” she said. “I am concerned that the current majority cares more about personal power than they do about the institutions and the people they serve.”

–Johanna F. Still

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Battle for the ‘Burbs

Steve Givens of Brunswick County now identifies as an independent voter. (Photo by Johanna Still)

Decades of political realignment have changed eastern North Carolina’s rural, Democratic bastions into Republican strongholds. And on the coast, an influx of retirees has helped Brunswick County’s population nearly double between 2010 and 2020. 

Despite Brunswick’s rapid growth, adjacent New Hanover County, home to Wilmington, remains the largest population center on the coast. After voting for Richard Nixon in 1968, New Hanover stayed in the Republican column in 11 of the next 12 presidential elections. 

However, young, college-educated urban professionals have taken a liking to Wilmington’s historic waterfront and trendy environment. Moreover, the historic growth of UNC-Wilmington, which saw enrollment soar by 39 percent from 2009 to 2020, has seen the left-leaning college vote become increasingly important. 

This influx of new voters has transformed New Hanover; it now ranks as one of the wealthiest and most college-educated counties in North Carolina.

For The Assembly, Eric Cunningham and Johanna F. Still detail the shifting political landscape ahead of the 2024 election.

Battle for the Burbs

North Carolina’s suburbs have historically been a key part of the Republican coalition. But as Donald Trump has reshaped the Republican Party, they’ve begun to realign.

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Where Do We Go, Now?

Homelessness is a tragic, complicated, and sometimes intractable situation. It’s also  an interesting political challenge for municipal officials–and a test of how they think about the limits of what local government can do.

At this week’s election forum for Wilmington City Council, hosts WHQR, WECT, and Port City Daily put the question to seven candidates, including two incumbents, vying for two seats, framed in terms of the recently-disbanded encampment of about 100 people near Kerr Avenue and MLK Parkway.

Republican challenger John Lennon said addressing the police force’s staffing shortage was the priority, and the city’s role should mainly be “connecting the dots” between partners like the county and the New Hanover Community Endowment. Republican incumbent Neil Anderson agreed, saying the city needed to “stay in its lane,” pointing to the city-county task force of police officers and social workers but also to resources like the Good Shepherd Center and Eden Village, a 31-unittiny-home community for those who are chronically homeless.

Democratic candidate Marlowe Foster said he wanted to see an Eden Village “on steroids,” with upward of 200 units, to handle the city’s homeless population (given the brief time candidates were given to respond, Foster didn’t get into how that would be financed).

Citing a police ridealong to the homeless camp, Republican candidate Kathryn Bruner said the city needed to strike a balance between enforcing the law–for example, trespassing–and connecting the homeless to services in the community.

Democratic incumbent Kevin Spears and candidate David Joyner, both said the city couldn’t “criminalize our way out of homelessness.” Joyner suggested “housing first” programs, which provide a place to live without requiring sobriety or employment,but only for people who are not actively dealing with addiction or mental illness. 

Democratic candidate Salette Andrews suggested permanent supportive housing, which is often a “housing first” plan that includes wraparound services for mental and behavioral health. She argued that those services are ultimately cheaper than putting people in jail or emergency rooms – as well as being “the right thing to do.”

Next month’s election won’t solve homelessness, but it will help shape the direction Wilmington goes on the issue.

– Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Twice the Tots: Cape Fear Community College’s new pilot program offering free drop-in child care for students is moving to a new space so it can double enrollment, EdNC reports. 

Supply List: The achievement gap between white and Black students at New Hanover County Schools will take another couple of decades to close at the current rate. WHQR reports on what’s needed to improve conditions across the district.

Boat to Vote: Port City Daily reports that the Brunswick County Board of Elections rejected Bald Head Island’s attempt to get a voting precinct established on the island, citing logistics and funds. In rebuttals, island homeowners cite their outsized financial tax contributions to the county.

Around the State

5 Takeaways on Redistricting

Here’s what was both surprising and unsurprising in the new proposed district maps Republicans released last week.

The Internal Fight Roiling North Carolina Democrats

The party wanted to put a long-simmering dispute over allegations of racism and antisemitism behind them. Then a war broke out.

Judgment Day

Thomas Ruffin was long celebrated as one of America’s greatest jurists. One attorney has spent the last 23 years trying to change that.

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