At a time when many argue that the legislature needs more openness and new blood, its leaders are secretly working on a plan that would keep the same folks in office. In other words, it’s redistricting time.
The planning for new state House and Senate districts is bound to cause a fairly major stink, when you consider some of the possibilities. For instance, the largely white, wealthy Green Hills area may soon become part of a majority-black state House district. The Memphis area may soon include six state senators (the entire Senate only has 33 members) when the census shows only five are justified. Meanwhile, the plan is being written by Democrats, and it’s anybody’s guess how they will stick it to Republican Williamson County when it comes to congressional redistricting.
Every 10 years, lawmakers must redraw all districts in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress to make sure they’re roughly the same population. In a perfect world, the legislature would have a computer develop the district lines and let the chips fall where they may. But that’s not the way it works.
Instead, leaders from the majority partyand that happens to be the Democrats right nowwork out a plan that meets the legal requirements of redistricting. As well, the plan’s authors do everything possible to protect incumbents and the party in power. It’s a complicated process affecting every voter in the state. And it generally happens in secret.
According to the recent census, a number of population changes in the state have to be taken into account. The most important trend is the explosive growth in Middle Tennessee’s suburban areas, such as Rutherford, Williamson and Maury counties, and a comparative decrease in population in urban areas, most notably Memphis.
It appears that the redistricting plans will not be made public until lawmakers convene in mid-January. Democratic leaders hope that the plan will be approved shortly thereafter. The plans themselves are being drawn by Sen. Jo Ann Graves, a Democrat from Gallatin, in the Senate, and several House members, including Rep. John Arriola, who represents Davidson County. The congressional redistricting plan is being drawn by Rep. Bart Gordon’s office.
Here are some of the key considerations as the writers of the plan pull out their pencils:
♦ At the congressional level, the population changes mean that Gordon’s 6th District must lose about 100,000 constituents. Democrat Gordon will almost certainly do what he can to lose as many Republican-dominated areas as he can. The most significant of these is Williamson County, which may become part of the 7th Congressional District, now represented by Republican Ed Bryant.
♦ Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary is running for governor and vacating his 4th Congressional Distric seat. The incumbents who surround them historically carve up vacated districts. Hilleary’s district borders Gordon’s to the south and west and winds from upper East Tennessee all the way to Hardin County in southwest Tennessee.
♦ To comply with the federal government’s Voting Rights Act, Tennessee must maintain at least the current number of predominantly African American state legislative districts. (Such a district is defined as 55 percent or more black.) Since most of these African American districts are in the inner city, and since most inner-city areas of the state are decreasing in relative population to the rest of the state, some parts of Tennessee cities that historically have been represented by white legislators will become parts of predominantly black districts. For example, the House redistricting plan currently on the table would place Green Hills in the 54th district (now represented by Edith Langster, an African American).
♦ Davidson County has seen a shift in population to the south and east. For example, Republican state Rep. Beth Harwell’s 56th district (Belle Meade, Forest Hills, Green Hills) now has almost 68,000 people, while Democratic state Rep. Mary Pruitt’s district (downtown/North Nashville) contains about 44,000 people. Because of this population shift, several House districts in Nashville will “slide” southward. One of those is the 52nd district, represented by Democrat Rob Briley. To Harwell’s dismay, Briley’s district is reportedly being redrawn to contain Oak Hill, which is far different than the communities Briley represents. “We need to preserve communities, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for Green Hills and Oak Hill to be lumped together with East Nashville and North Nashville,” Harwell says.
♦ Despite the dramatic increase in Tennessee’s Hispanic population, there aren’t enough in any given area to justify a Hispanic house district.
♦ The big story in the state Senate is the apparent need to replace a seat in or near Memphis with a district in the Rutherford/Williamson/Maury County area. The population shift out of West Tennessee has led to widespread speculation about which incumbent state senator might be left out. (Those from the Memphis area include Democrats John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, Steve Cohen and Jim Kyle and Republicans Curtis Person and Mark Norris.) Rumor has it that there are three scenarios, all of which would affect Norris, the most the junior Memphis area senator.
One scenario places him in a district with Person, who has held a Senate seat since 1969. A second places him in the same district as Kyle. A third effectively adds the rural, Democratic counties of northwest Tennessee to his district. “I realize that I’m kind of a focal point here, but as a practical matter there is almost nothing I can do about it because of my lack of seniority,” Norris says. “All I can do is keep my nose to the grindstone and try to represent my people for as long as I can.”
♦ In the state Senate, there are numerous scenarios that could affect people in Rutherford, Williamson and Maury counties. The most frequently mentioned possibility is that a district centered in Columbia will be created. But if the redistricting plan carves out a new Senate district that leans Democratic, Republicans will howl in protest.
Since the last two years have been so divisive in the legislature, with even members of the same party attacking each other over the state’s pathetic financial situation, some wonder whether there will be party unity over redistricting. One veteran lobbyist took the long view.
“The Republican and Democratic caucuses are like families,” he says. “They fight among themselves all the time. But when you face an external threat, you band together.”
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