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Watt, NC lawmakers testify at redistricting trial

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

Republican legislative leaders weren't justified in drawing majority-black political districts in areas where African-American voters already had proved to elect their favored candidates in coalitions with whites, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt and other Democratic elected officials said at a redistricting trial Tuesday.

Watt, who has represented North Carolina's 12th Congressional District for more than 20 years, testified in court on behalf of Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups who sued over the congressional and General Assembly maps approved by the Republican-led legislature in 2011.

Watt and other black politicians testified that racially polarized voting doesn't exist in their areas anymore or has decreased dramatically, and so majority-black districts aren't needed there for black candidates to succeed. The decision by Republican mapmakers to create districts that are more than 50 percent black as a reasonable remedy to avoid some challenges under the U.S. Voting Rights Act is wrong, they argued.

Watt said black candidates "win with a coalition of African-American and white voters," he said, referring to Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and former Mayor Harvey Gantt, among others. "There's a long history of that in Mecklenburg, and we are continuing to advance that history," the Mecklenburg County native said.

Three Superior Court judges considering the lawsuits for more than a year said they wanted to hear more evidence on race-related matters before making their rulings over motions to dismiss the lawsuits or to declare the maps unconstitutional. The two-day trial was expected to conclude Wednesday without immediate rulings after attorneys for the state and GOP legislative leaders offer their own witnesses. The results are sure to be appealed by the losing side.

The 2011 maps helped Republicans pad their majorities in the state House and Senate in the 2012 elections and win nine of North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats.

State Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, a former House speaker and U.S. Senate candidate, said his now crab-shaped state Senate district is drawn to pull in black voters from eastern and northern Wake County. Blue and others allege GOP leaders illegally packed black voters into oddly-shaped districts, split voting precincts and failed to keep whole counties within districts to help Republicans win more seats.

"The basis clearly was to pack all the African-American votes and people in the same district," Blue said in court.

Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters countered that mapmakers had evidence that racially polarized voting still exists, pointing to a study provided to them during the 2011 redistricting process from labor and civil rights organizations.

The groups who sued have the burden "of proving that the legislature did not have a strong basis in the evidence for believing that the challenged districts were necessary when they were drawn," Peters said at the trial's opening. During cross-examination, Peter suggested there were other reasons why black candidates were winning in districts with a minority of black voters, such as fundraising and incumbency advantages.

The judges also wanted lawyers to discuss this week whether race was the predominant factor — and an illegal racial gerrymander if true — in forming six districts.

One of the six districts is the winding 12th District, which stretches from Charlotte up Interstate 85 and takes in parts of Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Watt has been the district's only congressman but is expected to leave Congress if the Senate confirms him as President Barack Obama's choice to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The 12th District had to be redrawn twice during the 1990s after federal court decisions called the boundaries "racial gerrymandering. After the 2010 census, Republicans who took control of the legislature after the 2010 elections increased the black voting age population in the district from 44 percent to 51 percent.

Watt said on the witness stand that Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, told him before the maps were initially passed in July 2011 that Republican leaders "had told him that they were going to ramp the 12th Congressional District up to over 50 percent black." Watt said Rucho told him GOP leaders "had given him the task of going out and selling this to the black community as being in their interest."

"I actually laughed and said 'there is nobody in the African American community that's going to believe that you are doing this because it's in the black community's interest,'" Watt recalled as saying.

Tom Farr, an attorney representing Republican lawmakers, asked Watt why he didn't disclose this conversation specifically before the maps were approved. Watt said Rucho, who was once Watt's dentist, was a friend of his and the comments "were private conversations between the two of us."

During a court recess, Rucho said the statement Watt attributed to him about the 12th District "was totally untrue." Watt also said he believed Rucho mischaracterized publicly his view on the proposed 12th District.

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