This is one part in a series of Q&A’s with Democrats discussing their worries, plans, and hopes for the 2022 election.
The 2020 Census results gave North Carolina an additional seat in Congress. Republicans are determined to claim it, but they’re not stopping there. The GOP currently holds eight of the state’s 13 seats—and if its newly drawn congressional map stands up to court challenges, Republicans will gain a significant advantage in two currently Democratic districts as well.
They’ll also have a fighting chance in a formerly safe Democratic district that’s now drawn as a toss-up. That district is currently represented by Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who’s won by margins of up to 52 percent since he was first elected to Congress in 2004. But now, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Butterfield’s new district gives Democrats a mere 51.77-percent vote share.
I spoke with Rep. Butterfield about the Democrats’ chances in 2022, what the party needs to change about its messaging, and how he feels about Sen. Joe Manchin holding up the voting rights legislation that would have prevented this North Carolina redistricting disaster. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christina Cauterucci: How are you feeling about the redistricting in North Carolina?
Rep. Butterfield: Well, I am outraged about this map. I’m outraged that the Republicans would go to this extreme. I’ve been involved in redistricting in North Carolina since the 1980s, and this map is, in my opinion, the worst gerrymandered map that I have ever seen. It’s a political gerrymander and it is a racial gerrymander and it is totally unacceptable. That’s why we’re litigating. That is an unconstitutional map.
It is very unfortunate that we do not have the benefit of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, because if it was enforceable, it would prevent states from engaging in these [racial] gerrymanders. We are also in state court with a claim that this is partisan gerrymandering in violation of the state constitution. So there are two lawsuits that are ongoing.
I suspected that since Republicans have the majority in the state legislature, that they would go for the 14th seat that was being awarded to the state, so we would keep the five Democrats that we have and increase the Republican delegation from eight to nine. No, that’s not what they did. They now want to have an 11-3 map, or giving them the benefit of the doubt, it would be a 10-3-1 map, with my district being the toss-up.
You announced last week that you’ll be retiring instead of running for another term. Did you make that decision in part because it looks like a tougher race for you now?
That was a factor in making the decision. But it was not the total driver of my decision. I am 74 years old. I’ve been in Congress 18 years, served 15 years as a judge, 14 years as a lawyer, two years in the United States Army. I am approaching 50 years of being in the workforce. And any rational person must understand that there comes a time when you must retire.
And so I took into consideration the math, the gerrymandered map. For a Democrat to win in the district, it would require total commitment and just unconscionable devotion of time to the campaign—and to fundraising, I might say. I have a very loving family. I’m a newlywed. I got married six months ago. I have three daughters and four grandsons. My grandsons are growing up now, and I spend some time with them, but not hardly enough. It is just a convenient time to—well, it’s never a convenient time, but it’s a good opportunity to retire. It was clear to me that this was the time to pass the torch.
What does your district look like now?
The African-American community that resides in Greenville and northern Pitt County has now been removed from my district and placed in [Republican] Congressman Greg Murphy’s. So his Democratic numbers have gone up, and his African-American numbers have gone up, but not significantly. My Democratic numbers and African-American numbers have gone down considerably, from 42 percent to 38 percent. And when you look at African-American voter registration and turnout, it’s actually 36 percent.
All of that would be fine if we did not have racially polarized voting. But we have severe racially polarized voting in eastern North Carolina. The Republican legislature refused to take race into account in drawing these districts. But you cannot draw district boundaries and protect the rights of minority voters without taking racial data into account.
You said you’re outraged at the Republican redistricting plan—do you feel that same sort of outrage at Democrats who are holding up voting rights legislation in Congress?
Sen. Schumer has had repeated conversations with Sen. Manchin, and Sen. Manchin agrees with updating the formula for the Voting Rights Act. He even agrees with Senate Bill 1, the For the People Act. But he has this burning desire for it to be bipartisan. And so for the last two months, Sen. Manchin has been seeking 10 Republicans to vote with us, with him, on updating the Voting Rights Act—through the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—and he has only found one, Sen. Murkowski.
So now the question is, what’s the next move? The Congressional Black Caucus and others who are aligned with us are advocating for a rule change to eliminate the filibuster opportunity for senators when it pertains to legislation that affects the foundation of American democracy, and that is the right to vote. I support a modification of the Senate rule, which would eliminate the filibuster for updating the formula to the Voting Rights Act and passing the For the People Act.
I’ve got confidence that Sen. Manchin will finally come to this same conclusion. I think he probably needs another week or two try to convince himself that there’s no more Republicans who are willing to support it, and I think he will vote with us.
Have you been talking to Sen. Manchin about what’s happening in your district and in North Carolina?
I have not talked to Senator Manchin about this at all. He knows what’s at stake.
Is there any part of you that feels like, by retiring when your district has just become a toss-up, you’re leaving the Democratic Party in a tight spot? That you had, at the very least, the incumbent’s advantage, and maybe it’ll be a harder race for the Democrat who tries to take that seat?
I’ve heard the incumbency argument, and I suspect there’s something to be said for it. There’s also a counter viewpoint, and that is the American people are looking for fresh faces and fresh ideas. When I first came to Congress, we had partisanship. We had civility. We had respect for each other. We had respect for the institution. And that has eroded over the years. Two out of three Republicans now believe that the election was stolen from President Trump to favor Joe Biden—and I would say the number is higher than that among Republican members of Congress. And so there is something to be said for turnover on both sides of the aisle.
I want to talk to you a little bit about the Virginia governor’s race. We saw Republican Glenn Youngkin appeal to white grievance, which, at least according to some polls that I saw, seemed to appeal to a lot of white people of all education levels. Do you expect to see more of that kind of tactic in 2022?
I expect to see it in North Carolina, and all across the country.
Do you think Democrats should be responding directly to these sort of racist appeals to white people?
I think we need to call out racism where we see it, and if we see a racist candidate or a racist issue, we need to address it frontally. I suspect that critical race theory will be a campaign platform of the Republicans. And it is a smoke screen. It is an intellectually dishonest platform. It is a lie. Critical race theory is not being taught in public schools anywhere in my congressional district, and I suspect in any congressional district.
When a reporter first asked me, “What is your position on defund the police?” two years ago, I didn’t know what she was talking about. And I said, “Excuse me?” And then I started digging into it and found out that was the new talking point among the Republican right wing. I don’t know any person in America who wants to completely defund the police. They may want to reallocate the resources and establish some priorities in policing, but there’s no one in the United States that I know who wants to defund the police. But yet still we are going to hear it in every commercial against a Democratic candidate in 2022. And we’ve got to be prepared to call it out, call it what it is. We just can’t say that’s misleading. We’ve got to say it’s a lie.
Just to be fair, I do know some people who do want to defund the police. But your point, which I agree with, is that it’s far from a mainstream position.
Until they have a car accident and they’re lying flat on interstate highway and then they need the police. We’ve got to have police in civil society. We’ve got 320 million people in the United States. Somebody breaks my door down at night and comes in on my family, I’m calling 911. And I don’t want a sociologist or a psychiatrist responding. I want a policeman responding.
I want to talk about Build Back Better. I know you recently said that in order to get this thing passed, you had to accept a more pared down plan with a smaller price tag.
I was locked in at 3, 3.5 trillion. In fact, I thought that was on the low side. And when it became apparent that it could not happen in the political environment that we are in, I grudgingly lowered my expectations to 1.75. But we can get a lot done with 1.75. That’s still, by any definition, a lot of money, as long as it’s strategically invested.
I often tell the story that in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted voting rights included in the civil rights bill. Didn’t get it. Went for the civil rights bill, came back the next year and got voting rights. Came back three years later, got fair housing. In a toxic partisan political environment, you’ve got to make adjustments in order to move the needle.