VOICES: In North Carolina, exodus of women lawmakers is more than a coincidence

By Chris Fitzsimon, NC Policy Watch

High turnover in the General Assembly is not unusual in a year after legislative districts are redrawn. Many lawmakers who realize they are facing long odds of being reelected often choose to retire or run for another office.

The majority party that draws the maps not only tries to maximize the number of districts for its own candidates, it often also forces the issue by double-bunking incumbents of the minority party in the same district.

Democrats played that gerrymander game for years and Republicans played it in 2011 (ignoring their previous calls for an independent redistricting process), but there's something different happening this time.

Democratic legislators were clearly targeted, as you'd expect in a partisan district plan, but Republican legislative leaders seemed especially eager to target Democratic women in the General Assembly for defeat.

House Democrats Pricey Harrison and Maggie Jeffus were put into the same district in Guilford County. So were Rep. Susan Fisher and Rep. Patsy Keever in Asheville.

Democrat Jennifer Weiss was moved into a neighboring Republican House district in Wake County when a new district with no incumbent was drawn next door.

Veteran Democratic Senator Linda Garrou was double-bunked in a Republican district in Winston-Salem with powerful Republican Senator Pete Brunstetter.

Six women Democratic legislators have so far publicly announced they are not seeking reelection and others may announce soon.

Republican leaders don't seem to want strong Democratic women in the General Assembly.

And the maps follow a session where the legislature approved one of the most extreme anti-choice laws in the country that would force 13-year-old rape victims who are pregnant to view an ultrasound before accessing abortion services.

Republican Larry Pittman, appointed to the House in October to replace Rep. Jeff Barnhart, recently sent an email to all legislators calling for the execution of doctors who perform abortions.

The General Assembly also voted to cut off all public funding to Planned Parenthood affiliates.

And it's not just reproductive rights that were attacked. The News & Observer reported last weekend that state budget cuts and layoffs disproportionately affected women and people of color.

The majority of teachers and teacher assistants fired by the Republican budget were women and many of the cuts to Medicaid and other human services primarily affect women and families.

The Republican legislative leaders deny it all of course. The denials normally come from the top staff members for House Speaker Thom Tillis, Chief of Staff Charles Thomas, spokesman Jordan Shaw, and Legal Counsel Jason Kay, all white males.

Then there are the legislative leadership teams assembled by Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. Key budget chairs Rep. Harold Brubaker, Rep. Jim Crawford, Rep. Nelson Dollar in the House and Sen. Richard Stevens, Sen. Pete Brunstetter, and Sen. Neal Hunt in the Senate are all white males too.

Same for Majority Leader Paul Stam, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, Speaker Pro Tem Dale Folwell, Deputy Senate President Pro Tem Harris Blake, and even the chairs of the powerful Rules Committees, Tim Moore and Stephen LaRoque in the House and Tom Apodaca in the Senate.

Not a woman among them. Apparently the legislative leadership is not too thrilled with Republican women either.

It's definitely more than a coincidence.

(Photos of women who have announced that they are leaving N.C. General Assembly, top row from left: Rep. Jennifer Weiss, Rep. Edith Warren, Sen. Linda Garrou; bottom row from left: Rep. Diane Parfitt, Rep. Alice Bordsen, Rep. Patsy Keever.)