Tip O’Neill once said that “All politics is local.” The politics of Metro Council district boundaries are more local than most.
It was standing-room-only last Thursday as the city’s planning czars held a public hearing and voted on new Council district boundaries necessitated by the 2000 Census. This turnout was on top of 500-plus written comments the Metro Planning Department had already received, and the hundreds more voters who had shown up at five public meetings. As with all politically charged processes, there were winners and losersand a lot of compromise.
The folks in Joelton got the boundaries they feel will best define their sense of community. Some members of the Marrowbone community, however, suggest that the Joelton-friendly boundaries will split their sense of togetherness. Council member Ludye Wallace, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, was disappointed that the redistricting plan approved by the Planning Commission doesn’t increase the number of districts with non-whites in a majority. Perhaps of most significance, the new plan, to be introduced with a Metro Council public hearing Sept. 18, divides downtown into two districts. East Nashville’s District 6 absorbs the eastern side of the central city. The rest stays in Wallace’s District 19.
The Metro Planning Department has the unenviable task of proposing new boundaries for Council and school board districts. Working with the latest Census numbers, staffers divide total population as equally as possible into 35 Council districts. Redistricting, by adjusting boundaries in response to uneven population growth, is intended to protect the one-person-one-vote election principle.
The Council must vote the plan up or down with no amendments. If it rejects the new boundaries, then the Council must come up with an alternative plan. The rival plans would be presented to the public by referendum, and the citizens would pick their favorite.
The task of redistricting is tough because it charts political territoryand it’s impossible to please every interest group. Every Council member with a pulse knows exactly which precincts were in the plus column during the last electionand which were not. A redistricting plan that places winning precincts in another districtand replaces them with new campaign territorysets off alarm bells for incumbents. And new boundaries putting two incumbents in one district are twice as alarming.
Neighborhoods also demand some satisfaction. Over the last decade, neighborhood organizations have gained increasing power, not only in who gets elected, but in what issues get public attention. Activists view district boundaries that fracture the territory of these organizations as diluting the power of the neighborhood groups.
And there is, of course, the issue of race. Minorities represent approximately a third of the Metro population. As it stands, seven of the 35 Council districts count minorities as 50 percent or more of their total populations. People such as Wallace who think that minorities-in-the-majority present the best opportunity for a minority candidate to be electedwant more such districts. But they are harder to come by, as Nashville’s minority population becomes more dispersed. “Check the Census tracts,” former Council member Betty Nixon says. “It’s my impression that middle-class African Americans are moving from the inner city to suburbs like Antioch, Bellevue, and Hermitage.”
These are the key factors that the planning department juggles in drawing lines to achieve population paritynot voter parityin the districts. “The numbers the Census Bureau certified don’t reflect the population eligible to vote, just those living within a particular Census block in April of 2000,” Metro planning director Rick Bernhardt explains. The figures include children, residents of the jails and prisons, and the Vanderbilt dormitorieswhich are usually empty during Metro elections. “According to the Bureau’s figures, there are eight residents of Riverfront Park, and 251 residents of the block that includes the Courthouse,” Bernhardt says. “Maybe these are homeless. I don’t know.”
Term limits made Bernhardt’s redistricting job easier. A Council member unable to run again because of the current two-term limit will be less inclined to go ballistic over a boundary shift. “Almost all the incumbents were very interested in how we were drawing the boundaries of their district,” Bernhardt says. “Not nearly as many of the term-limited members were interestedmaybe 50 to 60 percent. And it was easier to avoid districts with two incumbents residing in them when 19 Council members are term-limited.”
A few especially interesting changes are contained in the redistricting plan headed for Council approval:
♦ District 1 will lose the rural Joelton area to District 3 and will shift from a majority-white status to a majority-black district whose political center is Bordeaux. In the last Council election, Brenda Gilmore, an African American, defeated the white, Joelton-based incumbent in an especially tense race. She should face a much easier election in 2003. Gilmore says she’s pleased with the boundaries because it gives her less real estate to cover. “My current district is one-fifth the land mass of Davidson County,” she says. “The new district is more manageable in terms of attending community meetings.”
♦ District 3, which now includes the Madison area (but won’t under the new plan), remains a majority-white district. In the plan originally recommended by planning department staffers (but changed by the planning commission), District 3 became a minority-majority district, raising the total of such districts from the current seven to eight. Because the new total remains seven, Wallace has indicated that he won’t support the redistricting plan. (The redistricting includes racial shifts in several districts, although the total number of minority-majority districts shakes out to be the same as before.)
♦ The plan for District 6, whose center includes the politically active historic neighborhoods of East Nashville, now also includes eastern portions of downtown between Charlotte Avenue and Peabody Street. Potential hot spots such as the Thermal plant and Rolling Mill Hillthe site of the old General Hospital slated for redevelopment into a mixed-use neighborhoodare now in District 6.
The new boundaries make some people happy, and others nervouson both sides of the Cumberland.
Term-limited Council member Eileen Beehan, who represents District 6, says that joining hands across the river could help her constituents develop partnerships with downtown heavyweights for joint marketing of the restaurants and music venues of the East, and the creation of new retail ventures downtown. “They have the business savvy; we have the consumers,” Beehan says.
Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce president Mike Rollins also likes the change, given that it would mean that more than one Council member would look after downtown. “With more than one representative,” he says, “downtown will be an integral part of more than one district.”
On the other hand, East Nashville resident Nell Levin fears that neighborhood needs could lose out to downtown because of the political power of the busines lobby. “The stadium has hurt, not helped, East Nashville businesses, because the traffic control restricts access to our restaurants, for one thing,” Levin said during a recent public meeting.
The fear of loss of influence runs both ways. Mac McDonald, a longtime downtown activist, is concerned that “downtown interests could get subsumed by neighborhood interests. East Nashvillians are doers, activists. For example, I wouldn’t want our ability to attract Watkins [College of Art and Design] to downtown to be compromised by East Nashville’s desire for Watkins. I’m concerned that the new district boundaries will dilute the energy downtown.”
While there are minor disagreements about the specifics of the new redistricting plan, there is overwhelming agreement that the process has been the most open in Metro history. Council member John Summers represented the local legislative body on the planning commission during the last redistricting in 1991, when he represented East Nashville rather than his current Sylvan Park district. “It was much more secretive then,” Summers recalls. “The planning staff put together a redistricting map without any input from the Council or public. The only public hearing was the day of the vote by the planning commission. So there were some real problems. In my district, Edgefield was divided right down the middle.”
The Council ultimately rejected the commission’s 1991 plan. “I had to broker another plan with the Council and the neighborhood groups,” Summers says. “And we had to hold a referendum to get it approved, which is expensive. I really commend Rick Bernhardt and his staff for all the public meetings they’ve held, the consultations they’ve had with the Council and interest groups, before presenting anything official to the commission.”
Bernhardt says that during the 1991 redistricting, the impending Council elections were a matter of months, not years, which made all the secrecy even more problematic. “This time around, Council elections aren’t until 2003, when the redistricting takes effect. In 1991 the elections were that fall. And because there weren’t term limits, everyone was eligible to run again.”
Most political insiders expect the Council to approve the redistricting plan with minimal opposition. Bernhard says that a referendum would cost the city $300,000 and admits that he would like to see at least some of that money replace the $250,000 the Council recently cut from Mayor Bill Purcell’s recommended budget for the planning department. The redistricting process “shows our approach, which is to involve the community,” Bernhard says. “All the people who had issues had a say, and we tried to satisfy as many as we could. We need the resources to continue to do that kind of planning.”
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