Jackson vs. the Gerrymander: An Interview with State Senator Jeff Jackson
Jeff Jackson, an up-and-coming state senator representing Charlotte, North Carolina, became involved with politics after first serving his country abroad. After the attacks of September 11th, Jackson enlisted in the Army Reserves and fought in Afghanistan. Upon returning to the U.S., Jackson attended UNC Law in an effort to become a prosecutor.
Jackson held a minor position in his local Democratic Party, one which he likened to “local party dog catcher.” But when the Charlotte city council tapped his state senator for Mayor, the local party chose Jackson to fill the vacant seat. “I knew some of the local players politically who would make the decision about who got to fill the spot, so that’s how that happened.”
Although first appointed to the seat, Jackson has put in an effort to earn his keep. This summer, the politician trekked across his district and knocked on a thousand doors. “I had just spent six months in Raleigh, so I just needed to immerse myself in the district. That seemed like the most logical way to do it. I knew that if I came up with a round number and made it public, I would go through with it.”
The effort paid off: Jackson gained valuable insights into how his constituents, and citizens more generally, felt. “People are pretty pissed off at politicians. The first fifteen or twenty seconds were people venting about politics. But once you got past that, you found all of this common ground.” Be it healthcare, education or infrastructure, Jackson found that people had the same big concerns, regardless of party.
The anger toward politicians wasn’t limited only for local representatives. “Most people were just reacting to the general state of national politics and how divisive it has become.”
His tenure in the military informed some of the ways he views leadership. “What being in the military gives you is the experience to observe many different types of leadership, some good and some bad.” Military service also emphasizes teamwork. “You need to be able to work with folks from all walks of life.”
The junior senator from North Carolina, Thom Tillis, recently shared some comments on President Trump and the military, saying "I think this president has shown more respect for our troops in the first nine months than the prior president did in eight years of office." Jackson contended with this: “I don’t know where that statement is coming from - there is no credible basis for the statement. I have to assume that it’s just Tillis sucking up to Trump, because it doesn’t make sense in any other way”
Moreover, the statement undermines Tillis’ credibility, Jackson said. “It’s disconcerting because it’s such a bizarre thing to say, that it kind of cuts at his overall credibility. That’s the punishment for saying bizarre things like that. He hasn’t been a person who has said a lot of bizarre things as a senator, and I was really surprised to hear that come from him.”
Jackson also addressed what he labeled as “an act of sabotage” against the Affordable Care Act by President Trump. “Real lives are at stake, and he’s chosen to neglect that in order to try and score political points for his base, which he may be able to do in the short term. But in the long term, they are the ones he is screwing the most.”
The senator has a sizable presence on social media, which he considers essential for him to keep his constituents informed. “For most of my constituents, that’s how they want to interact with me. They expect me to keep them posted on what’s happening through social media, because that’s where they already are.”
He thinks that meeting his constituents where they are is part and parcel of his position, and the overwhelming majority are online. “It’s not for me to say, frankly, that I don’t feel like doing social media. It’s sort of my job, so I better be there.”
Jackson focuses on gerrymandering in many of his posts online.
“It’s important to start with the bottom line, to convey just what’s at stake here. Of 170 legislators in North Carolina, 90% of us are invulnerable in a general election because we get to draw the districts and we cheat, ruthlessly. The power to draw the districts, with the data available now, is the power to determine the outcomes in about 90% of the elections.”
This should be a worrying trend for both parties, even though the legislators drawing districts are favoring Republicans, he said. “We have taken your elections from you. Even if you’re a Republican, you might think you’re okay with that, but what’s really happened is that we’ve taken away the ability to even choose if a Republican or Democrat represents you. You probably want that choice.”
Jackson also noted that invulnerability makes politicians less responsive. “It makes us do a bad job of listening because we know that we can’t be held accountable. My party did this for a long time, and now the other party is doing it.”
But there is a remedy for gerrymandering, Jackson said. “There’s a clear solution: we have to implement some form of independent redistricting. Any group other than sitting politicians drawing the map would be an enormous improvement.”
“The current group who drew the map openly cheated - admitted that they were going to draw it to favor their own side.” Senator Jackson thinks that is clearly an issue. “This is deeply unethical conduct, there’s just no other way to phrase it. It’s not a morally complex issue. As a former prosecutor, I see it like bank robbery. The only people who are in favor of bank robbery are those who are in on it. The rest of us think it’s a big problem.”
The General Assembly recently passed legislation to alter North Carolina elections, this time targeting judicial races. “In a special session, they passed a bill to eliminate all the judicial primaries next year: district court, superior court, court of appeals, supreme court judges. Which means when you go to vote, you’re going to have a choice of maybe a dozen people running for judge at each one of those levels.”
Stripping primaries crowds the field and makes informed decisionmaking more difficult, he said. “It’s going to make it incredibly hard to make an informed decision because of the multitude of people who will be on the ballot. It is deliberately undercutting an informed, democratic selection process for our judicial branch.”
The rationale for the bill did not add up for Jackson. “No one is quite sure exactly why they did it - they didn’t tell us the truth about why they did it. The answers they gave us were clearly bogus.”
“There’s no runoff either. You open yourself up to a situation where someone could win with 20% of the vote, and 80% of people voted for someone else. What does that do to the public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system? That’s why we have primaries, so that in the ultimate election, a majority of the people supported the victor.”
As more people move into North Carolina, the ninth-largest state, the rural-urban divide has increased. Along with division of people physically, their politics have split as well. “That divide has been artificially widened even more by gerrymandering. It also exists because of the economic transformations that we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years, and it’s probably going to accelerate because the economy is becoming more urban.”
“We don’t want to leave anyone behind. What we need to do is establish some kind of strategic fund, with upwards of $100 million, and go in and move the needle in select rural counties around the state for critical infrastructure projects that could lead to more economic development.”
The state does not have the funding to build manufacturing centers in every county, but we could do a few transformative projects that would add up over time, Jackson suggested. “It would show a good faith effort by the leaders of the state to make sure the rural communities aren’t left behind.”
The demographics of North Carolina could be heading toward the situation currently in Virginia, where state-wide elections tend Democratic but the local governments remain conservative. Jackson thinks we might be about a decade away from North Carolina Politics mirroring the Old Dominion.
Jackson did not categorically deny interest in seeking higher office in the near future, but his focus now is on his wife and two kids. With regard to politics, Jackson thinks he may be more useful in reestablishing North Carolina Democrats in 2020 as the census and redistricting looms.
“I want to help my party to make sure that we’re not sidelined for another decade because of redistricting.”
Tillis might face a contested reelection bid in 2020, though, at his current rate. “If Thom Tillis keeps making statements like the one he made yesterday, I think he’s going to invite plenty of challengers.”