For years, the Piedmont Triad’s cities have been chopped up and divvied between Republican-dominated congressional districts, diluting their heavy concentration of Democrats. But last year, after courtroom fights over partisan gerrymandering concluded, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point were united in a new 6th district that’s likely to go blue.
On the ground, a congressional district boundary can seem pretty abstract. But in drawing the previous congressional map, lawmakers divided the campus of North Carolina A&T State University. That line down Laurel Street in Greensboro felt personal.
It sparked protests from students, who said the obvious intent was to water down the vote of the nation’s largest historically-black university between districts drawn to ensure Republicans would win.
For the upcoming primary, though, the campus will be reunited, in District 6. NC A&T senior Braxton Langston-Chapman said that’s heartening — and not just for the students.
“It's the first time that this area and the Triad is getting the opportunity to vote as, you know, one people — not split between this neighborhood, that neighborhood, and the neighborhoods over there based off of the way people identify demographically,” he said. “I feel like this is the first fair election in my 21 years of age that I have been able to vote in.”
District 6 has been represented by Republican Mark Walker — an outspoken ally of President Trump — since 2015. But he decided against running again after the redrawing, which made the 6th one of at least two congressional districts in the state that are widely expected to swing Democrat.
Leaders in the Triad’s cities are hoping this means they’ll get a new advocate in Congress for urban issues.
Allen Joines is the long-time mayor of Winston-Salem, which has been part of another Republican-dominated district. Currently, that 5th District stretches west from Winston-Salem to Watauga County — about 90 miles and a world away.
“So, I think a focus on Winston-Salem, [and on] Guilford County, will help us … in terms of revitalizing our community, dealing with homeless issues, dealing with poverty and things like that,” Joines said. “And frankly, having a perhaps a Democratic representative [in Congress] will maybe have a more friendly ear to some of our social issues that we're trying to address here.”
Winston-Salem’s leaders, Joines said, have had a good relationship with the current 5th District representative, Republican Virginia Foxx, who lives in the mountains. But he said his city doesn’t always get enough help with things, like a $30 million neighborhood revitalization grant they’re going after from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said Winston-Salem has finally made it into the top five cities being considered for the grant on their third application.
“So we're keeping our fingers crossed on that,” Joines said, “but really need the congressional support for that.”
The mayor said Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has provided support for that project, but more support from the House of Representatives would be welcome.
One of the most concrete outcomes of the new version of the 6th District is likely to be its effect on the partisan balance in Congress. John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University, also said it could help someone rise to new prominence in the local political pecking order.
And, as Joines suggested, that in turn could result in benefits for the cities. Dinan said those opportunities have been rarer since the 2011 ban on budget earmarks — the practice of inserting individual provisions to fund specific projects in specific locations. But there are still opportunities for members of Congress to push for something of particular concern to their constituents to get included in a budget bill.
The open seat representing the Triad has drawn five Democratic candidates. Dinan said that’s pretty typical.
“Whenever you get a newly-drawn district of the kind here, you bring out some contestants,” he said.“Some who have been in there before, but some new ones.”
With no incumbent, it’s often not clear who to consider a front runner. But one thing political scientists consider when trying to determine who might have an edge in such races is name recognition.
One candidate, attorney Kathy Manning, recently ran in the 13th Congressional District, which includes part of the Triad. While she lost to Republican Ted Budd, the more than $4 million she raised clearly bolstered her profile.
But she’s not the only familiar name on the ballot.
“There's other candidates who are in the race who have their own support levels, who people are used to hearing about on the radio, seeing in the newspaper or seeing on TV. All that helps,” he said.
Indeed, all four of the other Democrats have political experience, and three have faced local voters before and won.
Ed Hanes is a former state representative. Derwin Montgomery is a current state representative. Bruce Davis is a former member of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Rhonda Foxx, meanwhile, had a front-row seat in congressional politics: She was the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Alma Adams. Four of the five Democrats are black and Langston-Chapman, the NC A&T student, said he’s excited that women and African Americans have a strong shot at winning the seat.
“It's huge, because you could actually never have a black Democratic candidate representing the Triad as a whole because of the way the Triad was split,” he said, referring to the old congressional map. “In my opinion, it’s the first time that the voters will identify with their candidates.”
While a Democrat is widely expected to win the general election in the fall, two Republicans aren’t willing to let it go without a fight. Businessman Lee Haywood and Laura Pichardo, an accounts payable analyst, are on the Republican ballot for the primaries.
Dinan said this kind of race — an open seat, primaries, a redrawn district — gives voters a lot to figure out.
“A lot of people aren't sure which district they're even in,” he said. “We put a lot of pressure and burden on voters to first of all, figure those things out and then start making sense of the candidates on the ballot.”
And the changes to North Carolina’s congressional map come with a big caveat: the districts will be redrawn yet again after this year’s census.