Federal Crimes Took David Lewis Down. But Voter Suppression Is What He’ll Be Remembered For.

Members of the NC General Assembly stand in this April file photo. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

By Billy Ball

August 21, 2020

From the Editor: The GOP lawmaker resigned as word of his plea deal with federal prosecutors spread, but Lewis’ legacy of voter suppression made a far greater impact on this state.

David Lewis, a nine-term GOP fixture in the state House, reveled in the moral and legal ambiguities of his office. 

But he found neither on Thursday, when the powerful state lawmaker resigned just moments before federal prosecutors revealed the details of a felony plea deal Lewis struck on charges that he’d misused campaign cash on his family farm.

The Harnett County legislator is expected to plead guilty to a felony charge of making false statements to a bank and a misdemeanor charge for failing to file a tax return in 2018. 

Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of up to six months in prison, a day after another powerful NC Republican, ex-state GOP Chair Robin Hayes, received his own sentence for his part in a 2019 bribery scandal.

It is a strange twist, however, that Lewis departs because of actions that were indisputably illegal, but his most damaging actions in office, affecting millions of North Carolinians, were ostensibly not. 

“We drew Congressional maps for partisan advantage. That was the point,” read the headline on an op-ed Lewis co-authored in The Atlantic in 2019.

At the time, state courts were considering the constitutionality of voting maps Lewis constructed for partisan advantage. And Lewis—savaged in 2016 with the rest of the legislature’s GOP leadership for voting reforms that, as one federal judge put it, targeted Black voters “with surgical precision”— made it clear voting reforms this time weren’t about race.

Lewis’ point? Courts had been historically reticent to consider the legality of partisan gerrymandering, but racially-motivated gerrymandering was another matter. These new maps, he posited, were crafted solely for partisan advantage and thus immune to the court’s interference, or so he thought.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Lewis infamously boasted in 2016 of his congressional maps. “So, I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

In a chamber oft-lampooned for a lack of transparency, Lewis was as clear in his partisan intentions as you are like to see. 

His maps were about the continued domination of his Republican Party in North Carolina elections, whether an increasingly purple state wanted it or not. His maps were about a consequence-free, nigh election-proof, political dynasty of Republicans.

We know how this story ended. State courts in NC found the whole thing too brazen to stand, and voters will go to the polls this year with fairer maps.

The end of an era?

Lewis’ partnership in the NC House of Representatives with Speaker Tim Moore will be recalled as an era of near total GOP power. And it cannot have existed without Lewis, who prioritized a precise, computer-assisted mapmaking that we understood to be tolerated, if not approved of, by courts.

Just days after the US Supreme Court voided a section of voting law requiring federal pre-clearance of voting changes in the old Jim Crow states, the GOP reforms of 2013 aimed to minimize the electoral power of Black voters and then, when that proved too egregious for the courts, progressive voters in general. 

Recall that Moore and Lewis’ chamber crafted their voter reforms with data on Black voting patterns in hand—analyzing the types of ID preferred by Black voters and the days and times Black voters were showing up at the polls—and acting to limit both. 

Federal judges wrote that state lawmakers attempted to justify their cancellation of Sunday voting hours by explaining that the day was dominated by predominantly Black, progressive voters, as close to a “smoking gun” as the courts could find.

We can be forgiven for forgetting many things in the last decade, in which NC became the early model for a dizzyingly partisan politics that torments the country today. 

But, however overwhelmed we might be today by the partisan acrimony, we should not ever forget the racism poured into the pages of Lewis and Moore’s voting bill.   

These things didn’t happen at the turn of the 20th Century, when whites in the South rose up, at times violently, to deny the voting and political power of Black residents, imposing measures to block Black voters at the polls. And if that didn’t work, resorting to simple violence. 

Lewis’ reforms didn’t happen in the 1950s or 1960s, when Black Americans such as Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. bled and died. 

They happened in 2013. 

If you were born that year, you’re still in elementary school.

We Southerners are a self-conscious people, heirs to a history that’s bloody and cruel and sometimes savage. 

But even if we know that there is more to the South than that, that there are heroes and icons and martyrs aplenty, David Lewis’ name appeared atop too many bills that would convince us there is not. 

If we can credit Lewis with anything during his time in office—and he co-sponsored many bills that had nothing to do with voting—it is that he removed the veneer of civility off of voter suppression and gerrymandering. 

It is that he taught us here in North Carolina, as so many are learning today in the US Postal Service turmoil, that we cannot take it for granted in the year 2020 that our political leaders want all of us to vote.

Which is precisely why we must.

In the coming months, Lewis will be judged for his crimes in a federal courtroom. But as a ubiquitous public official who has held almost unchecked sway in the last decade, he will likely be judged by the public in North Carolina for his disastrous attempts to return voting in the South to an ugly place.  

And in the end, he may find the federal judge’s sentencing much kinder.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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