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Local activist holds political race of a different kind

5K and chalk walk to draw attention to gerrymandering in North Carolina

Fred McCormick
fred@blackmountainnews.com

A Black Mountain activist has created a 5K race on a route that has an odd shape - the gerrymanded line that divides U.S. congressional 10th and 11th Districts in West Asheville.

On Sunday, Nov. 6 starting at Up Country Brewing on Haywood Road, tThe Gerrymander 5K & Chalk-Walk will take runners along what J.P. Kennedy describes as a “weird line” that will “make you think.”

John P. Kennedy stands in front of a mural of Buff Faye, the 2015 Miss Charlotte Pride. The mural in Charlotte is part of The Drag Queens of Queen City project, orchestrated by Kennedy and other artists.

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing congressional districts, typically to favor one political party over the other. Redrawing the lines falls to state legislatures every 10 years after the census. For the past several decades in North Carolina, it has been done to favor whichever party controls the General Assembly.

In 2011, a Republican-led legislature initiated a controversial statewide redistricting that moved much of Asheville and all of Black Mountain from the traditionally Democratic 11th District into the 10th District, which has been won by a Republican since 1969.

The map was challenged in court on the grounds it was constructed to lessen the impact of black voters by consolidating them into areas with established histories of electing Democrats. The challenge was rejected by a trial court but upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Taking up the subsequent appeal, the United States Supreme Court concluded the gerrymandering was racially motivated and instructed the state to redraw the congressional district lines.

The voting map was redrawn this year, but the line dividing Buncombe County into two districts remained.

Kennedy, a local musician who uses art to draw attention to social issues, became familiar with the impact gerrymandered voting districts can have while he was researching state House Bill 2, also known as the "bathroom bill." HB2, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in March, prohibits transgendered people from using bathrooms that do not correspond to their gender at birth. Critics have called it "the most anti-LGBT bill in the country."

Kennedy, who considers himself a "political junkie," began to wonder how voters could have a voice in the passing of a law like HB2.

“I found out it’s hard to do that because of the way the state has been gerrymandered,” he said.

The line dividing the 10th and 11th Districts bisects West Asheville, but not in a way that makes sense to Kennedy.

“The West Asheville neighborhood is the quintessentially bad gerrymandered line,” he said. “It cuts a block here, it cuts a block there, it skews around this neighborhood and that neighborhood.”

“Walking that line," he said, "you get the feeling that someone somewhere looked at voting records and tried to create a perfect map which has the least chance of creating a congressional district that is up for grabs each election,” he said. “They’ve done this to maximize safe congressional districts.”

Kennedy planned an art project to show others the absurd lengths he believes Republican legislators went to create the district lines. The best way to do that was to let people see it for themselves - the 5K art project and protest party was born.

Having an expected 50-100 people run, walk and chalk impressions along the gerrymandered line will tell elected officials voters will be watching the redistricting following the 2020 census, Kennedy believes.

“It lets the people who are drawing those lines that know that people in the state are paying attention,” he said.

Participants will have the option of running a timed 5K to win awards by age groups or walking the line as a chalk artist. Runners and walkers will receive T-shirts.

“We’re working with the League of Women Voters,” Kennedy said. “They’re going to be there at the event too.” He reached out to the Buncombe County Democratic and Republican parties, inviting their members to the event.

Registration is $25 for the 5K, and $15 for the chalk walk. Runners can sign up at runsignup.com.

Most of the money raised will go to covering the cost of the race itself. Leftover money will benefit the League of Women Voters, Kennedy said.

“I think it’s going to be a celebration for the people we know who are politically active,” he said. “We’re also hoping that people who are interested in learning more about the issue will show up.”