Strictly redistricting (say that five times really fast)

While several states have adopted new district maps, and more are in the approval process, Tennessee’s redistricting progress is slowed by partisanship and secrecy. Here are some thoughts about what we do know at this point.

Congressional Districts

Tennessee’s number of U.S. House districts remains unchanged after the 2010 census, though population shifts are requiring some reapportionment, particularly in the Middle Grand Division.

U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan, who represents District 2, wrote a letter to state legislative leaders advising them that the East Tennessee districts could pretty much remain the same, except for one little change. Duncan suggested putting the portion of Sevier County he represents back into the First District, currently represented by Congressman Phil Roe. Conservative political writer David Oatney examined that proposal and came away puzzled:

Did Congressman Duncan do the collegial thing and speak with Congressman Phil Roe (R-Johnson City) before he made this very public statement to Speaker Harwell? If he did, he might have learned that Congressman Roe seems most interested not in regaining the sliver of Sevier County represented currently by Duncan (though we are sure he would not turn it down), but in regaining all of Jefferson County[…].

Oatney also points out that the parts of Jefferson County not in the First are in the Third District. Meanwhile, McMinn County (Athens, Etowah) and Monroe County (just to the north of Polk County) are in the Second. If someone were to purposely make himself innocent of all political history, and draw Tennessee’s congressional districts based on population and geography alone, what would those districts look like?

Steve Ahillen, data and Sunday editor for the Knoxville News-Sentinel did that, actually. And lo:

For the Knoxville area, the 2nd District seat now held by Rep. John J “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. would cover Roane and Anderson counties, now part of the 3rd District, but not counties to the south that Duncan now represents.

Imagine, with me, districts that make sense. OK, the dream state is short-lived; back to reality. The Republican-controlled Legislature is doing precious little more than Democrats did for generations to ensure openness and common sense play a bigger role than partisan politics in the process. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has put up a website asking for public input, but neither he nor House Speaker Beth Harwell has taken the extra necessary step of allowing the public to view the process.

General Assembly Districts

Whatever early information has been shared privately with Democratic colleagues has apparently made them quite nervous. A few weeks ago I spoke with Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese, who lamented news reports that indicated the GOP is targeting Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), and is planning to force Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors (both D-Chattanooga) into a head-to-head match. “They’re not really keeping their cards close to their vest” regarding these seats, Puttbrese said. Still, most details are not yet known, and probably won’t be until days before the Legislature is back in session.

Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Harrison) stated that, due to a lack of equivalent population growth, Hamilton County likely will lose half a seat in the House by letting go of the portion now shared with Rhea County in current District 31. McCormick says that as a result “the mathematics won’t work” to maintain two majority-minority districts.

Sen. Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) has introduced a bill that would amend the Tennessee Constitution so that redistricting after the 2020 census and going forward would be done by an independent commission. It’s regrettable that members of Berke’s party abused their power for so many years and caused the inevitable payback scheme once the GOP gained the legislative advantage. Otherwise, the move to institute an independent commission would appear much less political on its face. Regardless, this is a welcome step towards a better system, and I hope the General Assembly and the state’s voters will agree.

Local Districts

The Hamilton County Commission has completed its redistricting task. The biggest change is to District 6, which had been a gerrymandered mess that spliced together disparate parts of the county. What’s interesting is that Lookout Mountain and Riverview, formerly joined with their affluent cousins Signal Mountain and Walden in District 2, will now wallow with Tiftonia, Westside, and lower Red Bank.

The 6th, which was represented for years by conservative Democrats Ben and Lou Miller (the latter after the former’s death), tried out a slightly more progressive Democrat (attorney John Allen Brooks) for a while; but then in 2010 switched to conservative Republican Joe Graham. The new district boundary slashes the traditionally Democratic-voting African-American population by nearly half; but this doesn’t necessarily translate to safeness for Graham. With Lookout Mountain and Riverview in the mix, the money-power equation may spell trouble for the freshman from Lookout Valley.

The need for a special election in District 3 has commissioners considering whether to change the effective date of the new county district lines from August to March 2012.

The City of Chattanooga is undergoing its redistricting process. It has until the end of the year to complete it. Public meetings are held every two weeks throughout the process.

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