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Monday May 16th

How Common Cause N.C.'s Bob Phillips fights gerrymandering in North Carolina

<p>Bob Phillips speaks to the crowd at an anti-gerrymandering rally in Greensboro in June of 2017. Photo contributed by Bryan Warner.</p>
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Bob Phillips speaks to the crowd at an anti-gerrymandering rally in Greensboro in June of 2017. Photo contributed by Bryan Warner.

Bob Phillips traced his finger from Charlotte, through North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, all the way down into Guilford, narrowly hugging Interstate 85.

Nicknamed “The Snake District” for the way it twists and turns through the state, touching over 20 counties, it’s considered by many the most gerrymandered district in the United States.

The tattered map Phillips held was one of about a dozen scattered around his office. Phillips has been working to change its shape for almost two decades.

Phillips, 61, is the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, one of 30 state chapters of Common Cause, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to encouraging citizen participation in democracy.

“We have a broken process,” said Phillips. “A process that lets a party in power draw the maps. And if you’re the party in power, you rig the maps. Why not? It’s legal to do it. So, lawmakers get to choose their voters instead of the other way around.”

Phillips has lived in Raleigh for more than 30 years. When he took the job in 2001, he didn’t expect it to be long term. At the time, he was the only staff member.

“It was overwhelming,” said Phillips. “So, while it was a new job for me, and there was a lot about it I liked, I was likely saying, ‘Wow, this is too much. I just don’t feel like I can be effective.’”

By fundraising, Phillips began to acquire the money needed to start building a staff around him. In 2015, Common Cause North Carolina merged with the N.C. Center for Voter Education. Today, the organization has seven full-time staff members.

Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, was one of the first permanent full-time staffers Phillips brought on with him and has worked with him for 11 years.

“He does not fear dissent, he’s very accommodating, and he’s an easy guy to work for,” she said. “He is effective at the work he does because he does it 120 percent.”

Phillips grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC, where he majored in political science. A lifelong Tar Heel fan, his desk is adorned with a framed photo of him shaking hands with Dean Smith.

After graduating from college, Phillips worked as a reporter at WPTF-TV, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh. He then moved into the arena of state government and worked as the communications director for Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker for eight years. After Wicker ran for governor in 2000 and lost, Phillips decided it was time for a career change.

Common Cause started in 1970 and Common Cause N.C. was founded the next year. Under Phillips, the North Carolina chapter has swelled to one of the largest state chapters.

As executive director, Phillips has emerged as a key player and advocate for change in the nonprofit field. He said he has continuously pushed for expanded voting rights and more fair maps, which he says has been no easy task.

“I do a lot of fundraising, I’m really the face and voice of Common Cause, so I do a lot of talking to the media,” he said. “When the legislature is in session, I cut my hair, put on a coat and tie and go down to the legislative building and lobby. And I try to persuade lawmakers to support our agenda.”

Bryan Warner, who previously worked at the N.C. Center for Voter Education, began working at Common Cause N.C. in 2015 when the two organizations merged. He works very closely with Phillips, which he said involves a lot of running back and forth between offices and shouting down the hallway.

“It can be really tough to work in the nonprofit advocacy reform realm,” said Warner. “It’s long hours, it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of perseverance. Bob is really in this for the long haul, through difficult times and through challenges. Whatever the state is facing, he is dedicated to always look for ways to improve the state that is his home.”

Phillips points back to his map of North Carolina. In August 2018, a federal district court ruled that North Carolina’s congressional map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and the state was ordered to redraw its map. But after working to do just that for the past 17 years, Phillips said he knows it’s not just a simple fix.

“You can draw ugly maps, you can draw pretty maps, but you can still gerrymander it to preordain outcomes,” he said. “In the 2016 election, not one of these districts was competitive, most were won by double digit margins.”

Regardless of what the new map looks like, Phillips is committed to continue his work at least through the 2020 election. Battling partisan gerrymandering has become his life’s work, and he wants to go out fighting.

“I want to see what North Carolina will look like after this 2020 election,” he said.

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