Democratic Rep. G. K. Butterfield announced his retirement on Thursday, a decision that came about two weeks after North Carolina’s Republican-dominated state legislature passed a new gerrymandered map that reduces the Black population of his district to make it considerably more conservative.
The congressman himself said of the new map, “It’s racially gerrymandered. It will disadvantage African-American communities all across the 1st Congressional District. I am disappointed, terribly disappointed with the Republican majority legislature for again gerrymandering our state.”
Butterfield’s existing 1st District supported Joe Biden 54-45, but the new seat—which takes in a heavily Black stretch of North Carolina’s rural north and some Raleigh exurbs and is now numbered the 2nd—would have gone for Biden just 51-48. What’s more, the long-term political trends in the area have been very unfavorable for Democrats, so Butterfield could very well have faced a brutal campaign in what’s shaping up to be a challenging midterm. Any Democrat hoping to succeed him almost assuredly will.
The candidate filing deadline is Dec. 17, so Butterfield’s potential successors have just a month to decide what they’ll do. Hours before Spectrum News’ Reuben Jones broke the news of the congressman’s departure, Democratic state Sen. Don Davis told The Insider he would be interested in running for an open seat.
The campaign of former state Sen. Erica Smith, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate last year, also says she’s considering ending her second bid for the upper chamber in order to run here. Inside Elections’ also mentions Valeisha Butterfield Jones, the incumbent’s daughter and the co-president of the Recording Academy (the group behind the Grammy Awards), as a possibility.
On the Republican side, the most notable candidate is Butterfield’s 2020 foe, Sandy Smith, who kicked off a bid for a rematch before the congressman decided to depart. Smith, who lost last year’s race 54-46, ended September with $255,000 on-hand, largely thanks to self-funding.
Smith may not have the primary to herself, though. Former state Sen. Buck Newton, who narrowly lost the 2016 general election for attorney general, expressed interest earlier this month, and others could also take a look here.
Butterfield’s retirement ends a long career in two different branches of the government. The future congressman’s father and namesake, G. K. Butterfield Sr., made history in 1953 when his election to the Wilson City Council made him the first Black elected official in eastern North Carolina since Reconstruction. His colleagues responded to Butterfield’s work registering other African American voters by holding an emergency meeting while he was out of town and voted to require city council members be elected citywide instead of by district—a move they correctly calculated would lead to his defeat in 1957.
The younger Butterfield practiced civil rights law for many years, a career decision he said was motivated by the Wilson City Council’s actions, until winning election to a state Superior Court post in 1988. He served in that role until Democratic Gov. Mike Easley named him to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2001, though he lost a retention election the following year.
Easley soon restored Butterfield to the Superior Court, but he permanently left the bench in 2004 after seeing an unexpected chance to run for Congress in the 1st District. Rep. Frank Ballance, a freshman Democrat, had announced his re-election plans earlier in the cycle, but he reversed course and retired for what he said were health reasons. Butterfield entered the race to succeed him, but the race took another unexpected turn when the incumbent resigned in June. (Ballance pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering later that year.)
Party leaders designated Butterfield their nominee for the ensuing special election, which took place six weeks after Ballance’s departure—the same day as the Democratic primary for a full term. Butterfield won 71% in both races, and he never had trouble holding his seat for the rest of his career.
Butterfield served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2015 to 2017 and was a vocal proponent for restoring the Voting Rights Act after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted it in 2013. Indeed, as Insider’s Grace Panetta noted after the news of his retirement broke, Butterfield advocated for policies that would have cracked down on precisely the sort of racial gerrymandering that North Carolina Republicans used to target his district.