BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – In a trial to determine whether or not Alabama racially gerrymandered some of its congressional districts, U.S. Congressman Bradley Byrne testified the four congressional maps proposed by the 10 black voters suing the state would “destroy” the ability of representatives to effectively serve their constituents.
“If you’re making them about race, you’re getting them wrong,” Byrne said.
In their suit, the plaintiffs argue that the state could have created a second majority-minority congressional district.
But Byrne – a Republican congressman who is running for the U.S. Senate and was a witness for Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill – said that, to adopt the proposed maps would be to make a decision based on race, which he said would go against the beliefs held by Martin Luther King Jr.
As part of its defense, the State of Alabama is arguing that what the plaintiffs seek to do is itself racial gerrymandering – and if Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires such a change, than that section of the act is unconstitutional.
Five minutes before the trial was set to resume Thursday, Byrne sat in the witness stand, with his arms crossed, wearing a gray suit and silver tie. He nodded quickly as he was sworn in.
Byrne’s testimony came on the same day former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he will run for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, competing against the congressman.
Byrne has raised the most of all the Republican candidates running for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat. He had $2.5 million cash on hand at the end of September, according to Federal Election Commission data. That is eclipsed by Democrat and incumbent Senator Doug Jones, who had $5 million during the same period.
Backed by the National Redistricting Committee, the group of black Alabama voters sued Merrill in June 2018. They asked the judge to declare that mapmakers in 2011 packed the 7th Congressional District – which includes portions of Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham – with black voters and then split other black voters throughout three congressional districts.
Chief Judge Karon Bowdre said she would not issue any injunctive relief to toss the map for the 2020 elections.
Under examination by Deputy Attorney General James Davis, Byrne said the compact nature of the 1st District allowed him to focus on a few key issues that mattered to a district united by economy and culture.
“It doesn’t matter where you live in the district, you’ve got some connection to the water,” Byrne said.
That ranged from recreational fishing to workers in the shipyards building boats for the U.S. Navy.
Residents in neighboring counties travel into the populated counties to shop, work and seek heath care. It is a diverse region with a rich history, settled by the French, Spanish and English and hosted an early Mardi Gras.
In one of the plaintiff’s proposed maps, the 1st District splits Mobile and runs across the southern border of the state. Byrne said the communities in the southeast portion of Alabama have different concerns and different economies. A long district will add to the issues on which a lawmaker must focus, he said.
For instance, while agriculture around Mobile may focus on seafood, the agriculture in Alabama’s southeast corner is cattle.
“If that was your job, you’d do it. But there are only so many hours in a day,” Byrne said, adding that a long district would be difficult to travel.
In the six years he’s been a congressman, Byrne has held 130 town halls in all corners of the state.
During cross-examination, Perkins Coie attorney Bruce Spiva asked Byrne if he had ever met the president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.
They had never requested a meeting, Byrne said.
Spiva asked about different organizations: Local NAACP chapters? The Southern Christian Leadership Council? The National Urban League? The League of United Latin American Citizens? None had asked for meetings, Byrne testified.
He said that he did not know the percentages of residents in Mobile and Baldwin Counties who were black.
Spiva then wanted to talk about President Donald Trump. On Monday, Byrne had described the House’s impeachment inquiry into the president as a “Star Chamber.”
Under questioning, Byrne said he did not remember Trump saying there were “very fine people, on both sides” after the deadly 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally.
“I don’t recall that, but I don’t think there were fine people on both sides,” Byrne said.
Neither did Byrne recall a House vote over the summer condemning a series of Tweets directed at four freshman congresswomen.
Spiva asked if Byrne did not remember voting against the resolution condemning the president’s comments as racist.
Byrne said he may have been voting against something attached to or slipped into the bill.
“There is the noise and there is the substance. I and my staff are focused on the substance,” Byrne said.
When Davis asked Byrne on redirect, the lawmaker said he would have been happy to accommodate requests from groups such as the NAACP or the Urban League.
The trial is expected to wrap up Friday.