Black voters removed from a state Senate district where their choices could determine the winner

Switch is “a true attack on the Black vote,” says New Hanover County resident and activist

By: - November 6, 2023 5:55 am
Mahlaynee Cooper speaks on gerrymandering

Mahlaynee Cooper reads her poem at a redistricting public hearing in Raleigh – Photo: video stream

Sonya Bennetone-Patrick told her cousin she almost fainted when she saw the plan for the New Hanover state Senate district.

Predominantly Black precincts in Wilmington were cut away from New Hanover and attached to a Senate district dominated by Brunswick and Columbus counties. 

“I’m still sick over it,” Bennetone-Patrick said in an interview. “I’m just devastated. It’s a true attack on the Black vote.”

The General Assembly approved new boundaries for North Carolina’s U.S. House, state House and state Senate election districts during the last week in October. As a result, thousands of North Carolina voters will see new candidate names on their ballots and their legislative and congressional representatives will change after the 2024 elections. 

Democrats and voting rights groups said Republicans used redistricting to illegally weaken the influence of Black voters at the ballot box. Republicans steadily maintained that their redistricting plans are legal. Political data but no racial data was used to create the plans, they said. 

The redistricting changes came down like a hammer in some of Wilmington’s Black neighborhoods, splintering them from most of the rest of their county.  

“They are truly the core of New Hanover’s Black community,” said Mahlaynee Cooper. She is a resident of neighboring Brunswick County who spoke at a September redistricting public hearing in Raleigh. “In my opinion, it’s immoral and it’s pretty wicked that you’d go to this level to stop people from progressing,” she said. “I’m disappointed but not surprised.”

Bennetone-Patrick’s cousin is Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat. Murdock spoke on the Senate floor about voters in Wilmington’s Black neighborhoods who will be vastly outnumbered by voters in Columbus and Brunswick counties.

The Senate redistricting map swaps those densely-populated Black precincts with other Wilmington precincts, which will now be a part of the New Hanover district. 

New Hanover has too many people for a self-contained Senate district. 

Senate Republicans were under no requirement to change the district. When Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue asked about it, Sen. Ralph Hise, one of the chamber’s redistricting chairmen, said he hadn’t looked at it and couldn’t explain it

At an Oct. 26 news conference, Blue said Republicans pulled the six Wilmington precincts with the highest Black population and voter participation out of the New Hanover district and moved predominantly white precincts into it.

NC Sen. Dan Blue
Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake Co,)

“Race had to be a factor in deciding to take these Black folk out,” and cut a third of the Black political power from the New Hanover Senate district, Blue said. “They were claiming that they did it for partisan reasons, but you can’t discriminate on the basis of race for partisan reasons.”

Elections in New Hanover and Brunswick

Residents in those majority-Black precincts were cleaved from a Senate district in which recent elections were decided by slim margins, and where their votes could have helped decide who wins the next one. 

Incumbent Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover Republican, decisively won elections in 2014 and 2016. Lee’s easy wins ended after that year. He lost to Democrat Harper Peterson in 2018. Peterson won 48.6% of the vote to Lee’s 48.3%. 

Lee won the 2020 rematch with 50.5% of the vote to Peterson’s 49.5%. Last year, Lee won with nearly 51% of the vote to Democratic challenger Maria Morgan’s 49%. 

Lee did not respond to an email last week with questions about the district’s changes. 

Now, the voters will cast their ballots in a district the Republican candidate will almost certainly win running away. 

Republican Sen. Bill Rabon represents their new district which is dominated by Brunswick and Columbus counties. The shape of his district has changed over the years, but he’s never won with less than 57% of the vote in the last five elections. Rabon ran unopposed in 2022 and in 2016. 

“Brunswick County is so red, if every Democrat voted it wouldn’t change anything,” Bennetone-Patrick said. 

Brunswick and Columbus counties are solidly Republican. Former President Donald Trump and the state’s last two Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Ted Budd in 2022 and Thom Tillis in 2020 all won Brunswick and Columbus by much wider margins than they did statewide. 

In New Hanover, however, Democrats — including U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley in 2022, and both President Joe Biden and Senate nominee Cal Cunningham in 2020 — prevailed in those races despite losing statewide. 

Lee courted voters in the Black precincts last year, Bennetone-Patrick said, but Rabon can win without stepping foot into Wilmington. 

Rabon did not respond to an email last week asking if he will campaign in Wilmington.

NC Sen. Michael Lee
State Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County

Black voter impact

Bennetone-Patrick knows more about Wilmington’s central Black precincts than most people. As a regional director of the National Black Leadership Caucus and a Wilmington resident, she works there planning education events that include trips to the General Assembly, showing people how laws are made, and reminding them to vote when it’s time. 

“We know the vote did not come to us easy,” she said. “We want our votes to have an impact.”

Her efforts aim to show residents the connection between the legislature and the community.

Cooper is a member of the leadership caucus too. Both drove to Raleigh in late September for a public hearing on redistricting where speaker after speaker demanded an end to gerrymandering and implored legislators to keep communities of interest together. 

Cooper is co-founder of Speak Ya Peace, a platform that marries the arts and social justice. She delivered a poem at the public hearing that she wrote on her way to Raleigh. 

“I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity to tell them how I felt on the inside about what they were doing,” she said.  

Her poem included a Malcolm X quote: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”

On Friday November 10, Wilmington will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the 1898 massacre and coup d’etat in which white supremacist killed Black residents, burned the city’s Black newspaper, and forced residents into exile. A statewide campaign of Black voter suppression followed. 

“It’s almost like history trying to repeat itself. Same dance, different tune,” Bennetone-Patrick said. “That’s what they want – to disenfranchise the Black vote. They don’t use physical force. They use the law now.”

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.