“Twist again? Like we did last millennium?” Jock postulated. “No, that doesn’t scan right, does it?”
“No, sweetheart.” I shook my head. “And, of course, the idea is to move voting forward in North Carolina, not backward.”
We were discussing the news that Chubby Checker—yes the Chubby Checker of “The Twist” fame—is coming to perform at Blockade Runner in Wrightsville Beach. It’s a fundraiser for Common Cause North Carolina’s campaign to end gerrymandering. That might sound like a surprising combination at first, but the more I learned and thought about the announcement, the more it seemed to fit together.
Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating electoral maps so politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing representatives. The word comes from the Massachusetts election of 1812. In spite of an amazing record during the Revolution, plus having signed the Declaration of Independence and championed the Bill of Rights, Governor Elbridge Gerry is remembered as the man who created districts for the purpose of serving political ends rather than representing the democracy he dedicated so much of his life creating. His name, Gerry (technically, pronounced with a hard “r” but which has softened over the years), is linked with the image of a salamander because the district created was so misshapen, it looked like a salamander on the map. The resulting cartoon published at the time sealed his moniker and enshrined him forever in infamy.
As I mentioned in a column last September: Civics class taught us the Constitution provides for a census to be taken, partly to apportion political representation. In this day and age, there are numerous ways to track data: drivers licenses, college enrollment, arrest records, property records … the list goes on and on. Drawing and redrawing district maps to benefit one group or another, or “gerrymandering,” is effective as ever.
In North Carolina a three-judge panel ruled the first week of September that district maps have to be redrawn and in full public view. The mastermind behind the legislative maps the court ruled to be unconstitutional was the now-deceased Thomas B. Hofeller. Since his death, Hofeller’s archives have begun to reveal the extent of his impact on our legislative process. His daughter has been making headlines by posting the contents of his digital files online (thehofellerfiles.com). Admittedly, as of press, I have only had the briefest glimpse of the site—but wow! Stephanie Hofeller states very clearly she is choosing to make all this information public because it belongs to “We The People” (her words) and not to the GOP, who paid her father to collect it and manipulate it on their behalf.
National Public Radio reported on January 5 that in 2018 Stephanie Hofeller contacted Common Cause North Carolina, seeking a referral for a lawyer for her widowed mother. Common Cause was pursuing a lawsuit over the North Carolina Legislative Districts at the time. They won the case, partly because of the information brought to light by Stephanie from her father’ files—and, so, the districts were re-drawn last winter.
Still, the gerrymandering issue is far from resolved, here or nationally.
Common Cause was formed in 1970 by John W. Gardner, a Republican who served in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s cabinet. It was instrumental in the passage of the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution:
“The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”
In other words: If you are old enough to fight and die for your country, you should be able to vote and participate in your country’s affairs. That was 1971; the draft for Vietnam was in full effect. Now Common Cause work focuses on election transparency, fairness, and trying to end gerrymandering. Of course, this includes fundraising because legal action costs money.
In theory a good fundraiser nets a profit, and gives the recipient an opportunity to make a case for their work—to an audience that ranges from long-time supporters to first-timers. Putting together a compelling fundraiser is not an easy task, but, for a great intersection of civics and the arts, Wilmingtonians shall look no further than Ray Kennedy. Locals and folks around the state have been treated to a very special production of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s musical “1776,” depicting the events of the Continental Congress in an immersive setting, directed by Kennedy and produced jointly by Positive Impact, Opera House Theater Company and Foundation Forward, Inc.
“Through my work with Positive Impact World, I met the team at Common Cause earlier this year,” Kennedy tells encore. “I have always been interested in politics and supporting and talking to our leaders, and as a history buff, ‘1776’ is one of my favorite musicals. With recent court rulings, anti-gerrymandering and Common Cause have been in the news.”
The time seemed ripe for a spectacular event. After years in the entertainment business, including working with the USO and producing cruise-line entertainment, Kennedy has great connections. He has assembled an amazing roster for a fundraising event on January 31, 2020. NaTasha Yvette Williams, the Broadway star featured in “Waitress” and “Chicago”; JeRenae Raeford, first runnerup and talent winner for Miss North Carolina 2019; and Elisa Smith, award-winning actress and vocalist. And Chubby Checker will join.
“Yes, the real Chubby Checker—Billboard’s number-one recording artists of all time,” Kennedy assures. “He wanted to be involved with the event for Common Cause.”
Mr. Checker was born in South Carolina, not far from Pawley’s Island; though, he grew up primarily in the Philadelphia area. His daughter, WNBA player, Mistie Bass, played for the women’s basketball team at Duke (2002-2006).
Williams also has North Carolina connections. The Broadway star grew up in Fayetteville, NC. Kennedy points to her roster of accomplishments, including “The Wiz” and “Porgy and Bess.” She is currently playing Mama Morton in “Chicago.”
“She is a great friend and believes in Common Cause and how they are giving people their voice back in politics,” Kennedy notes. “It is a bipartisan issue, and the people I have met are independents, Republicans and Democrats, all with a ‘common” goal.’”
Folks who attend the January 31 fundraiser will also meet the Common Cause leadership, including its national president, Karen Hobert Flynn. Booze will flow and decadent food from Blockade Runner will be available in abundance. But the purpose of the evening is to inspire people “to participate, learn and take action,” according to Kennedy. “Gerrymandering is wrong—and neither party nor politicians should be drawing voting maps. North Carolina is one of the key places in the country where votes have been diluted and Common Cause wants elections fair for both parties.”
Though Common Cause won the most recent court battle regarding North Carolina legislative maps, the fight is far from over. The Raleigh News and Observer reports when new US Congressional maps are drawn after the next census, North Carolina is expected to pick up a 14th Congressional seat. Anyone with questions about what that process will look like and who may be concerned the maps are fair to all North Carolinians should attend the fundraiser. Art can facilitate people meeting, talking and connecting. Kennedy is providing the perfect evening for all elements to merge and forge lasting partnerships.
In addition to joining Common Cause on the 31, the most important thing anyone can do is register to vote and exercise that right at the poll. People are fighting to make your vote count. The North Carolina primary election is coming up March 3, 2020. Show up to the polls this time and every time.