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Tennessee's first important redistricting struggle came after the 1970 census with the redrawing of the Shelby County district. The conflict provoked a clash between representatives of two key emerging forces in Tennessee politics — African-Americans and Republicans. Tennessee lost one of its congressional districts (going from nine to eight after the census), triggering some reshaping of the Memphis-based district.
The incumbent, Dan Kuykendall, was the first Republican congressman elected from Tennessee in the 20th century outside the GOP's mountain strongholds in East Tennessee. He was first elected in 1966, when the Shelby County Republican Party emerged from the tumult of the civil rights years as a hardline conservative alternative to the mountain moderation of the party's East Tennessee wing. The General Assembly moved some important Republican areas to a neighboring district — probably more with an eye to troubling the incumbent there — opening the door to a black challenge in the inner-city district.
Kuykendall survived the 1972 race but fell to State Rep. Harold Ford Sr. in a disputed election in 1974. Ford subsequently held the seat for 20 years, and the 9th District (Tennessee got its ninth seat back with the 1980 census) has been drawn as a minority district ever since. Indeed, each side achieved a durable result. Republicans got a reliable seat based on the East Memphis and Shelby County suburbs, while a safe inner-city district was created within the core of Memphis. The inner-city district met a need within the Democratic Party to expand the sharing of power to African-American voters.
But the bigger challenge was less obvious. Over the approximately 30 years after the mid-1970s, the Democrats would be facing a protracted rear-guard action to slow the Republican advance in the state. The nature of that advance wasn't necessarily obvious in the 1980s — the GOP looked hopelessly lost after the defeat of Winfield Dunn in the 1986 gubernatorial election. But the undercurrents were all flowing rightward.
The 1980 census hardly looked like an easy time for Democrats, who controlled two-thirds of both houses of the General Assembly. Most of the redistricting energy was devoted to intra-party feuding in Nashville and contention among white and black Democrats in Shelby County.
In Nashville, Democratic Sen. Joe Crockett had run afoul of various East Nashville power brokers and faced a potent primary challenge from the well-connected Joe Haynes. With the connivance of the party caucus, Crockett was able to redraw his district in advance of the 1984 election to exclude Haynes' residence. Haynes got an apartment in his erstwhile district and went to court to get himself back on the ballot. Ultimately, Haynes was able to get back on the ballot and defeated Crockett, who had taken a serious press beating over the matter.
After his election, Haynes got the General Assembly to pass legislation to put his house back in the district and allow him to drop the fiction that he was living in the apartment he rented. Haynes, who is still in the Senate, ended up aggrieved with the process once again this year — feeling the 2012 lines loaded his district with too many Republicans and had been drawn for his defeat.
The Shelby conflicts were strategic — some of the white Democrats felt they could pick up a couple more seats if the black Democrats would be a little more flexible on district lines. The blacks, who had fought a century-long battle to get representation in the legislature, wanted to be cautious and make sure minority votes were not so diluted that black representation suffered. House Speaker Ned McWherter sided with the blacks.
After the Kuykendall debacle, the congressional incumbents learned a lesson of their own. District lines are all about dividing up a fixed pie, and one man's poison is another man's treasure. In those circumstances, it's easier to be reasonable. The incumbent members made their own deals privately, then sent their directions to the General Assembly.
"We used to get a letter signed by all nine congressmen," recalled long-time state Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), who has undergone his own shuffle in the current redrawing, endng up in the same district as Sen. Beverly Marrero. "And it was never touched."
The 1990 census added one other wrinkle: computer technology. Redistricting software became commonly available, allowing more politically artistic versions of district maps without going through complex calculations as a result of each small change. House Majority leader Bill Purcell used the new technology to draw eight Republican incumbents into four districts in a peak moment for Democrats.
After 1980, Tennessee senators never really feuded about partisan redistricting. When Lt. Gov. John Wilder fended off an attempt by the Democratic Caucus to dump him as the party leader by making an alliance of rump Democrats and Republicans, he managed to hold onto his job while blurring partisan lines on just about everything.
"Wilder didn't care if you were a Republican or a Democrat — so long as you were for Wilder," said Kyle.
The peculiar balance ended up minimizing partisan redistricting fights for 20 years. But politics was changing. Tennessee had always had more Republicans than the other states of the Solid South — the block of segregationist states that had voted together for Democrats since the Civil War. But the GOP's false dawn of 1970, when Republicans held the state Senate, the governor's office and both U.S. Senate seats (which were gradually all lost to the Democrats by 1986), may have obscured the long-term trend of Republican dominance in the South.
Although Republicans had managed to win individual elections at the top of the ticket, Tennesseans still held some emotional grip to the Democratic Party — particularly the more moderate/populist lawmakers who came out of the various rural counties. At the top of Democratic tickets, leaders such as Jim Sasser and Al Gore were able to fashion themselves as something more in tune with people of the state than the national party that had placed Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis atop the ticket. By focusing on economic issues and speaking softly on cultural ones, Sasser and Gore both scored big statewide sweeps against a seemingly feeble Republican party in 1988 and 1990 respectively.
But the ability for Tennessee Democrats to distinguish themselves from national Democrats died, largely in the growth of talk radio, Fox News, the Internet, and the declining respect accorded to an evenhanded press. Big national-wave elections in 1994 and 2010 completed the purging process. By 2011, Republicans in Tennessee held both Senate seats, the governor's office, seven of nine congressional seats, and strong majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.
The Democrats may remain enfeebled for years to come, but it's probably not the redistricting process that's going to do it. The Republicans took a few nicks out of the Democrats this year, but the fundamental tension in the Republican Party is the same as it was when the Democrats were in control: The effort to draw new Republican-leaning seats will always come at the expense of reducing safe Republican seats.
The current cleavage in Tennessee politics — and in national politics as well — is between those who believe that the world is fundamentally just and fair and people get what they have coming to them, and those who see people suffering from injustice, inequality or plain bad luck and think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." The first group sees America as a giant mooch-ocracy larded with special interests and entitlements; the second sees a country with a social safety net under attack. When the economy becomes firmer again, that cleavage may change.
But until then, expect the politics of the state to look mostly like scrapping oversupplies on the life raft. Tempted as Republicans may have been to use the redistricting process to sweeping advantage, in charge at long last after all these years, they may have found there wasn't really all that much they could do. They already have everything.
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