Viewpoint from Justin King, Research Fellow at Carolina Forward
Image credit: @UniteCarolina
Recently, Republican State Rep. Erin Paré of Wake County introduced House Bill 99, which intended to modify the selection process of the Wake County Board of Commissioners from partisan to nonpartisan elections. In addition, the legislation would require that only residents residing within each board of commission district be allowed to vote for representatives in that district, similar to state legislative races. The current method provides that all seats up for election be voted on by the entire county. I reside in and previously ran for county commission in Johnston County where commissioners are selected in the same manner as Wake County presently does. I also previously lived in Wake County for several years when times were much better there for the Wake GOP. The challenges experienced at the ballot box by Wake Republicans is not the result of the county commission selection process, but rather a much broader problem that no legislation is going to address.
Rep. Paré is the last remaining Republican member of the Wake County legislative delegation. Republicans have incurred massive losses in recent election cycles, due to the widespread rejection of MAGA by Wake voters. When I resided in Wake County during the middle part of the past decade, legislative Republicans like Nelson Dollar, Chris Malone, and Skip Stam were able to get reliably re-elected each cycle until the Trump backlash swept them out of office. If not for a partisan gerrymander to keep a Republican in southwestern Wake County, Rep. Paré would have already joined the likes of Dollar, Malone and Stam as former Republican legislators.
In filing this bill, Rep. Paré has categorically admitted that the Republican Party is no longer capable of competing effectively in Wake County – unless, that is, the rules of the game are changed to boost them. Wake County has gone from voting for President George W. Bush in 2004 at 50.83%, to voting for President Biden in 2020 at 62.25%. In what was supposed to be a massive red “wave” in 2022, Republican legislative candidates in Wake County lost by even bigger margins than the county’s partisan ratings called for, indicating a partisan realignment towards Democrats that is still underway. This comes as no surprise when the Wake County GOP hosts far-right extremists like Majorie Taylor Greene for fundraisers just weeks prior to the last election. (Rep. Paré admitted she was too busy with other things to attend the fundraiser.)
After every member of the Wake legislative delegation and Wake Board of Commissioners rejected the legislation, Rep. Paré negotiated a settlement that included adding two at-large seats, with the remaining seven districts being decided on a partisan basis and by voters of the districts only. The right-wing Art Pope-John Locke Foundation released the partisan breakdown of the seven districts and found only one to be competitive based on the 2022 election results – which just happens to be the district Paré herself resides in.
Democrats in Wake County were under no obligation to negotiate any settlement to this bill but did so for reasons that I do not understand. Republicans in Raleigh have spent the past decade suppressing Democratic voters through aggressive and blatant partisan gerrymandering in counties like Johnston. Doing Wake Republicans a solid by providing them one competitive district amounts to Democrats negotiating against themselves. There is absolutely nothing stopping a Republican legislative majority from hijacking school board and county commission elections across North Carolina via the local bill process (which cannot be vetoed). Democrats should be willing to exert political power where they can, because Republicans certainly have – and will continue to do so.
Rep. Paré is doing what she thinks is best for Republicans in Wake – and for herself. But don’t hold your breath for the Republican legislative members in my Republican county to feel sorry for Democrats, and assert that they are a special class in need of protection. Democrats in Johnston County suffered through two decades of painful election losses, but things are turning around. Their vote share has been gaining at the federal level each cycle since 2016, and will likely crack 40% in 2024 because of explosive new residential housing growth. Wake Republicans will probably need to suffer the same type of losing before they decide that maybe hanging out with “national divorce” boosters like MTG is not a good way to attract new voters.
GOP map-drawers are almost out of gerrymanders to carve for southwestern Wake County. With her MAGA bona fides not quite up to snuff with the likes of Bo Hines, Rep. Paré likely cannot win a congressional primary. That being the case, House Bill 99 could be a way for Rep. Paré to preserve her career in Wake County, since her other options are quickly closing. By elevating Republicans in Wake County to political endangered species status, Rep. Paré is feathering her bed for the years to come.