Mary Wills Bode was on the New York City subway last year when her life jumped tracks.
A chance encounter led her to leave the Wall Street law firm where she was on a partner track. She came home to North Carolina, and now she’s working to end gerrymandering in the state.
Bode celebrates this month’s court ruling that directed the legislature to redraw legislative maps for the 2020 elections. But she said in an interview, “it’s not going to deliver a long-term fix and long-lasting reform.”
Bode is Executive Director of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), founded by Tom Ross, former President of the University of North Carolina system.
NC4RR is pushing for an amendment to the State Constitution that would abolish partisan gerrymandering for good and forever, for all elections.
Bode said the fundamental problem is the power – and abuse – of personal data: “Big data has caused big problems for democracy.”
Gerrymandering isn’t new, in North Carolina or any state. Democrats and Republicans have done it. What’s new is the level of computer-driven granular detail that can be manipulated to slice and dice voters and districts, guaranteeing victory for one party or the other.
Unlike reform proposals that establish an independent redistricting commission, NC4RR would put rules in place regardless of who draws the maps. The rules would:
• Prohibit use of any detailed personal data that could predict voting behavior.
• Require transparency in redistricting.
• Require that districts be “contiguous and compact” and “respect county and geographic lines.”
Bode said that, instead of being the poster child for gerrymandering, “North Carolina can be the example of bipartisan redistricting reform for the rest of the country.
“Our state has a historic opportunity to show that good government can be good politics.”
“I come by my politics honestly,” she said. Her mother, Lucy Hancock Bode, was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Department of Human Resources under Governor Jim Hunt. Her father, John, is an attorney and lobbyist in Raleigh. Mary Wills grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 2006, then went to Wake Forest University and UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.
In New York, she worked in capital markets and leveraged finance at the Wall Street firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP and then later at Proskauer Rose LLP.
On the subway one Sunday in July 2018, she and a friend were talking about North Carolina politics. An elderly gentleman overhead them and struck up a conversation.
He turned out to be Franz S. Leichter, a Holocaust survivor who served for 30 years in the New York legislature and was called “the conscience of the Senate.”
He and Bode became friends. A few weeks later, Bode told him she was thinking about coming home and working on redistricting reform. Having been gerrymandered out of his own district three times, he told her, “This is a serious issue for democracy. You have to go back to North Carolina.”
“My definition of success changed,” she said.
Success for NC4RR is achieving comprehensive reform before the next redistricting in 2021. It’s pushing House Bill 140, the FAIR Act – Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting. As a constitutional amendment, the bill needs a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate. Then it goes to a statewide referendum.
Bode said that requires bipartisanship. So NC4RR has Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
The co-chairs are Ross, a Democrat, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican. Members include former legislators Margaret Dickson, a Democrat, and Skip Stam, a Republican; Rhoda Billings, former Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Democratic political consultant Courtney Crowder; Sharon Decker, former NC Secretary of Commerce conservative commentator John Hood; Allen Joines, Mayor of Winston-Salem; Raleigh developer David Meeker; Bob Orr, former Associate Justice of the NC Supreme Court; Vicki Lee Parker, Director of the NC Business Council; Southern Pines publisher David Woronoff and Julian Wright, Charlotte attorney and civic leader.