Party lines static despite district changes

By Chris Berendt Staff Writer

March 16, 2014

An analysis

Even though Sampson County redrew its district lines more than two years ago, shifting portions of the population around the five districts in order to balance them, it appears that has not changed much in terms of the local political climate.

The recent history of Sampson County Board of Commissioners is one of a 3-2 Republican majority, with those three Republican commissioners representing Districts 1, 2 and 3, covering the central and western parts of the county and the entire northwest portion, and the two Democrats hailing from Districts 4 and 5, covering the southern end and eastern border, extending to the northeast portion of the county.

Five of the last six commissioners races have been decided before the general election. If nothing changes, there will be two more added to that list this year, with Democrat Brent Baggett’s midnight-hour filing for the District 1 commissioner seat keeping that from being three.

Baggett will await the winner of the May 6 Republican primary between Danny Jackson and Clark Wooten. All are vying for the seat being vacated by Jarvis McLamb. As of the redistricting at the end of 2011, District 1 has a total population of 13,033, of which 7,170 are registered voters. That includes 3,607 Republicans, or 50.3 percent, by far the largest Republican contingent of any district.

There are 2,511 Democrats (35 percent) and 1,037 unaffiliated voters (14.5 percent) in District 1, according to the 2010 Census figures used when the county’s redistricting was completed.

On the other end of the scale, the District 5 commissioner race will pit incumbent Albert Kirby against fellow Democrat Eugene Pearsall. There were no last-minute Republican challengers in the race for District 5, which has a total population of 12,107, of which 6,955 are registered voters. That registered voter population includes 4,327 Democrats, making up more than 62 percent of the voters in the district (second only to District 4’s 64.5 percent).

Additionally, there are 1,725 Republicans (24.8 percent) and 897 unaffiliated (12.9 percent) in District 5.

Republican Sue Lee, the lone candidate filing for the District 3 county commissioner seat set to be vacated by Jefferson Strickland, is poised to be the first female on the board. She has no opposition in May or November, and appears to be a shoo-in as that district’s next commissioner.

While District 4 and 5 are overwhelmingly Democrat and District 1 is heavily Republican, Districts 2 and 3 are much closer in terms of registered party voters. Billy Lockamy’s District 2 has a total population of 13,063, of which 8,107 are registered voters. That includes 3,620 Democrats (44.7 percent), 3,287 Republicans (40.6 percent) and 1,196 unaffiliated (14.8 percent).

The 4 percent difference in registered party voters in District 2 is the closest of all districts.

District 3 has a wider gap between the number of registered Democrats to Republicans, at 3,332 (46.9 percent) and 2,680 (37.7 percent), respectively, but still stands as what would otherwise be the closest race — a possible swing district — in terms of the board’s open seats.

In all, District 3 has a total population of 13,060, of which 7,108 are registered voters. It also has the the largest unaffiliated percentage of voters, at 1,093 total, or 15.4 percent.

Harry Parker’s District 4 has a total population of 12,168, of which 6,971 are registered voters. The registered party breakdown for District 4 includes 4,497 Democrats (64.5 percent), 1,646 Republicans (23.6 percent) and 825 unaffiliated (11.8 percent).

The terms of Lockamy and Parker extend until 2015 and 2016, respectively.

In all, according to the 2010 Census, there were 36,311 registered voters in Sampson County. Of those, 18,287 are Democrats, 12,945 are Republicans and 5,048 are unaffiliated.

The board sought at the end of 2011 to redraw district lines in order to balance the population and close the population deviation to inside 10 percent between the most- and least-populated districts. Population figures alone necessitated redistricting, as there was a difference of 2,142 people between the most-populated District 3 and least-populated District 4, an overall 17 percent gap.

While doing that, the board wanted to protect incumbents and keep them inside their own districts, as well as adhere to a 1989 consent decree that mandated two minority majority districts (at least 50 percent black in two districts).

Around half the population is black in Districts 4 and 5, at 49 and 50 percent, respectively. Those districts have respective white populations of 35.5 percent and 33.2 percent. The Hispanic populations range from between 15-18 percent in every district. While the population is around 70 percent white in Districts 1, 2 and 3, the black populations in those districts range from 11-14 percent.

After a map was chosen, and approved in a 3-1 split vote along party lines, some raised concerns on voter confusion that could occur as a result of splitting the majority of the precincts, as well as validity of protecting current commissioners as part of a process that will affect district lines for at least the next decade.

“The fewer precincts that are split, provides less confusion for the voters during elections,” resident Kent Sutton, who presented his own map for consideration, said at the time. “Less precinct division will result in less problematic elections.”

It remains to be seen whether that confusion will arise. Outside of Parker’s defeat of Joshua McLamb in a 2012 primary to fill longtime commissioner John Blanton’s District 4 seat, there have been no county commissioners’ races to judge whether that is true. Other than District 1, there still will not be any races pitting parties against each other.

Both Sutton and then-Democrat party chairman Johnny Kaleel presented the possibility of having an at-large electoral process for commissioners, to provide all citizens of the county a chance to run for office.

“As it is now, if you’re interested in serving the people of the county, you have either be a minority who lives in Districts 4 and 5, or a white Republican who resides in the other three districts,” Sutton said then. “Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I think most people would agree that one-party control of any branch of government is bad government. And that’s what we’ve had for the last 20 years, and it appears that’s what we’ll have for another decade.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at