Featured Transparency and Elections

1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.

Featured Transparency and Elections

Politics ‘Impossible’ To Remove From Redistricting Process

As Tennessee Republicans sit down this fall to redraw the lines that determine the makeup of their legislative districts, there’s an opportunity to do unto Democrats what Democrats did unto them for decades — use the power of the pen to give themselves a political edge.

“Any time you have 99 politicians carving up anything, you’re going to have some controversy so I expect there will be some creative tension,” said House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick. “But we’ll work our way through it and eventually get something that 50 or more can vote for, and that’s what we’ll go with.”

Republicans, who snatched away the Democratic control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in 2010, now possess the magic marker to draw the state’s legislative districts, a process that’s done every 10 years in conjunction with the U.S. Census.

Legislatures across the country are redrawing their district lines, and in Tennessee lawmakers are just getting warmed up.

Both House and Senate lawmakers are meeting behind closed doors to figure out what their new districts should look like. In the House, Republican leaders are meeting with each representative in the 99-member body to talk about the districts. Officials in the Senate are further behind drafting their maps but expect to make a plan public by December.

Lawmakers are also responsible for redrawing Congressional districts, a process that is just beginning, McCormick said. Both the House and Senate expect to present their proposals when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, although the plans must make their way through several legislative committees in the spring in order to be finalized before the April deadline.

Around the country, the redistricting process has sparked hundreds of Voting Rights Act challenges.

Democrats in Tennessee are threatening to sue if House Republicans indeed end up putting two African-American lawmakers — Reps. Tommie Brown and Joanne Favors — in the same Chattanooga legislative district.

Rumors were also circulating that Senate Republicans plan to plop Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle into another Democrat’s Memphis district. Chatter around Capitol Hill also included plans to pit Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh against former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh in the same West Tennessee district, but those talks have fizzled.

Removing politics from the redistricting process is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean states like Tennessee shouldn’t try, political experts at a special Nashville screening of the documentary “Gerrymandering” said this month.

The 2010 film chronicles the history of gerrymandering and how it’s been used as an equal-opportunity political football to chop up districts and make them pleasing to parties in power.

“I don’t think you ever totally remove politics from the procedure, it’s probably impossible,” said Gregg Ramos, a civil litigation attorney practicing in Nashville, at the League for Women Voters’ panel discussion about gerrymandering. “But the more you can remove politics from the process, the better, it seems.

“I’m hard pressed to think of something good that comes out of this process.”

Gerrymandering is done by dividing an area into voting districts in such as way as to give one party or candidate an advantage over another, a practice Ramos says disenfranchises voters.

“What happens when my vote doesn’t count? You don’t vote,” he said.

Politics can’t be totally avoided, and the politics of Tennessee has shifted red, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

“If we draw things fair and legally, it would be almost impossible to draw districts in the state of Tennessee that didn’t shift some from Democrats to Republicans simply because of the demographic change in this state,” he said.

“Democrat areas were usually the ones that lost population. If you look at that, it’s just factual. There’s nothing you can do about that. The Republican areas were the areas that gained population,” he told reporters last week in Legislative Plaza.

The true danger of a democracy is the “tyranny of a permanent majority,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “It’s just a disincentive to assemble, to petition and to speak out.”

In trying to learn more about the secretive process of legislators redrawing districts to favor their party’s political ambitions, the League of Women Voters is challenging Tennesseans to submit their own maps. So is Ramsey, who wants submissions by Nov. 1.