The most important date in 2021 for the 2022 elections is Aug. 16.
That’s the day the United States Census Bureau promised to deliver the detailed results of the 2020 decennial census. Federal- and state-level data is already out, and estimates have been making the rounds for months. But on Aug. 16, all that speculation will end when the headcounters-in-chief show exactly how many people — broken down into every demographic category imaginable — live in each census block.
Because of the already released numbers, we know Tennessee will hold fast at nine seats in the United States House of Representatives. Because of the state constitution, we know the state House will have 99 members and the Senate 33. (Technically, a maximum of 33; the Tennessee Constitution says the number of senators shall not exceed one-third of the number of representatives, but it seems unlikely the Senate will vote to shrink itself.) Similarly, the Metro Charter lets us know there will be 35 councilmanic districts.
Those are the constants. The variables are, of course, who goes where.
Tennessee grew by about 8.5 percent between 2010 and 2020 and Nashville by about 12 percent. With no change in the number of elected officials, the long and short of it is, each district will have to contain more people.
But growth was uneven.
Estimates show Middle Tennessee and parts of East Tennessee grew the most. In the Midstate, that growth was particularly strong in the suburban counties east and south of Nashville.
Interestingly, by percentage, the fastest-growing county was tiny Trousdale. But as ever, the devil is in the details; the Turner Correctional Center opened outside of Hartsville in 2016. The influx of jobs connected to the prison — and the incarcerated people themselves — account for the growth, meaning Trousdale County boasts an extraordinarily high rate of disenfranchised people (a discussion for another time).
Essentially, the largest-growth counties were in three distinct bands: Davidson and all the counties bordering it to the east and south (plus Clarksville’s Montgomery County and the aforementioned Trousdale); a line along the Cumberland Plateau connecting DeKalb, Putnam, Cumberland and Chattanooga’s Hamilton County; and an arc in the Smokies including Loudon, Knox and Sevier. The counties that shrank are largely in rural West Tennessee and in the Upper Cumberland.
The takeaway? The districts that served these counties will get larger as the others tighten up. And that’s where the dream of Republican apparatchiks and lusty lawmakers — slicing up Nashville to swing the current 7-2 Republican tilt in the U.S. House to 8-1 — runs into a problem.
As Louis the Pious taught us, drawing lines to satisfy everyone’s lust for power may actually end up causing fraternal rivalries. (To extend this metaphor, Republicans Scott DesJarlais, Mark Green and David Kustoff are Lothair I, Charles the Bald and Louis the German in the time before the Treaty of Verdun.) If the Republican-dominated state legislature — in Tennessee, they’re the ones charged with redistricting for state and federal elections — decides to shoot the moon and slice Nashville into four districts, diluting the Democratic vote, there will likely be room for all the incumbents at the table.
But there are politically practical reasons not to do that; for example, Rutherford County is not only growing apace, it’s getting younger and more college-educated. A sure thing in 2022 may not be a sure thing in 2026, for example.
But if the legislature decides it’s OK to simply hold serve at 7-2, it opens up an internecine Pandora’s box. DesJarlais’ district — currently a U shape from Rutherford County to Rhea County north of Chattanooga — will almost certainly have to be pulled west, losing ground to the Chattanooga-based district of Chuck Fleischmann. Alternatively, the Republicans could gamble a little and link Murfreesboro with parts of northwestern Hamilton County and perhaps draw in part of reliably red Williamson County, hoping that any nascent Democratic momentum is stanched by the shift. But that presents problems for Green, whose district runs from Clarksville down to the Alabama border, widening predictably as it goes south, though it swings over and grabs the Williamson County prize. Montgomery County is still seen as Republican-heavy, a by-product of military-heavy Clarksville and its rural balance. But like Murfreesboro, Clarksville is growing, getting younger and more diverse. Keeping Williamson County helps hold those changes at bay.
What’s for certain is Kustoff’s district is going to grow; almost all of the counties with significant population loss since 2010 are represented by the Germantown Republican. Currently confined to the most northern and western counties of the Delta, the district will either have to take in part of Shelby County or push into Green’s district.
It’s not an easy pie to slice, nor a set of factors that’s easy to balance. Perhaps the party could use the opportunity to rid themselves of DesJarlais (who infamously once urged his mistress to get an abortion despite running as a pro-life candidate, among other things, and who one former high-level TNGOP staffer once called a “terd” whom he “regretted shoving over the finish line”), but often, the devil you know …
These squabbles likely won’t extend to the General Assembly redistricting process. There’s some chatter about how the legislature may try to redraw Davidson County’s state Senate lines to create a district friendlier to a (moderate) Republican after Steve Dickerson’s defeat in 2020, but otherwise there’s only so many ways to divvy up the spoils.
As for Metro, the initial set of district lines are the province of the Planning Department, an apolitical body setting the stage for (wink wink) nonpartisan elections. The 2020 lines are likely to show something of a reversal of a 50-year trend. For decades, as the county’s population became suburban, the councilmanic districts near downtown grew in size. But now, people are returning to the core, meaning some of those districts will have to squeeze in tight again.
Where the real battles — if there are any — will come is, bizarrely, in the numbering system. The Metro Charter mandates a two-term limit for councilmembers, though that’s two terms as a district member and two terms as one of the five at-large members.
But there’s a little quirk. If a district is renumbered, or if the lines draw a councilmember into another district, the term-limit counter resets. For example, Freddie O’Connell has represented District 19 near downtown since 2015. Ostensibly, he’ll hit his two-term limit at the end of the current term in 2023, and if he wants to remain on the council, he’d have to run countywide for an at-large seat — unless the influx of people to the core forces a renumbering of the central districts or a shift in the lines, and O’Connell suddenly finds himself residing in, say, District 15.
The way the lines are drawn matters, but so does what you call the polygons they enclose.