Memphis lawmakers worry about losing district seat amid plummeting population

By: - September 1, 2021 5:01 am
Memphis Democrats could lose a couple of seats in redistricting. Pictured from left in foreground: Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, Memphis Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Nashville Rep. Jason Powell. (Photo: File)

Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, Memphis Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Nashville Rep. Jason Powell. (Photo: File)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton appointed a bipartisan panel to handle redistricting in Tennessee, but even with Democrats on the panel Memphis legislators remain fearful of losing a seat as their urban population falls.

“It’s a big concern,” says state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. “I just want to make sure that the process is fair and the people are represented properly and that things are not slighted based on anyone playing outside of the rules.”

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, is one of 16 House members Sexton named to serve on what is being called the first-ever bipartisan House Select Committee on Redistricting.

Memphis Democrat Antonio Parkinson, left, sits on the bipartisan redistricting committee but faces the danger of his own district being redrawn. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Memphis Democrat Antonio Parkinson, left, sits on the bipartisan redistricting committee but faces the danger of his own district being redrawn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Oddly enough, his own district could be in jeopardy because of the dwindling population in the Memphis area, which saw numbers decline in nearly every one of 14 House seats. Parkinson’s District 98 is 8.6% below the ideal population, which, with a state population of some 7 million under the new census, could be about 70,000 for each of 99 House members. State law allows a variance of 5% from that ideal number.

Other Memphis lawmakers are in more dire straits, such as Rep. Torrey Harris, whose District 90 is 15.3% below the ideal number, and Rep. London Lamar, whose District 91 is 16.7% short.

Rep. Larry Miller’s District 88 is 9.2% below the ideal number, Rep. Barbara Cooper’s District 86 is 8.8% short, and Rep. G.A. Hardaway’s District 93 is 8.8% under the best figure. 

Districts for House Minority Leader Karen Camper, Rep. Jesse Chism and Joe Towns, all Memphis Democrats, are within 2.5% to 3.3% of the best number.

A Memphis Senate seat could be in trouble too. Sen. Raumesh Akbari’s District 29 is 12% under the ideal number, and Sen. Sara Kyle’s District 30 is 10.3% under the right number.

Facing such a difficult situation, Camper says she hopes Sexton’s “vision of transparency is true.”

Democrats previously called for hearings statewide with public input. Sexton didn’t broach those ideas in a recent announcement.

In announcing the committee, Sexton says it represents the “distinctive voices of Tennesseans” from the state’s three grand divisions.

“I appreciate both my Republican and Democratic colleagues for their work as part of this panel, which will play a critical role in a transparent, public process that will produce both fair and constitutional redistricting plans representative of all Tennesseans,” Sexton says in a statement.

House Ethics Counsel Doug Himes, a veteran of redistricting plans, will serve as legal counsel for the committee.

Shelby County Democrats, nevertheless, understand they’re still outnumbered on the committee, and they hope to have a voice in the process instead of just being shown a map with the districts already drawn.

Not only did Memphis numbers decline since the last census. So did the population in rural West Tennessee and Upper East Tennessee, while most of the counties in Middle Tennessee saw large increases.

For instance, Rep. Chris Hurt, a Republican who represents Crockett, Haywood and Lauderdale counties in District 82, is 18.5% under the optimum number. Republican Rep. Debra Moody’s District 81 in Tipton County is 12.7% short.

Democratic Rep. Johnny Shaw’s District 80 in Hardeman and Madison counties is 18.6% under the best number.

Population losses are similar for Republicans in East Tennessee as well.

“We’ve got to make sure areas that lost population don’t get left behind,” Camper says. “We just need to evaluate the numbers and make sure we have equitable and equal representation.”

Democrats aren’t the only party that could lose districts favorable to them: Rep. Chris Hurt, who represents Crockett, Haywood and Lauderdale counties holds a district 18.5% under the optimal population for a state house district.

Doing it without putting some lawmakers’ homes in the same district will prove difficult, even with Democrats serving on the committee.

Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican whose District 92 is 4.2% above the optimum number, says he’s focused on looking at demographic shifts across the state and coming up with a “fair and constitutional” plan. Vaughan is one of 12 Republicans on the committee.

But even he is realistic about the potential loss of a seat in urban Memphis.

“I’m a pro-Memphis guy, and I would like to see Memphis well represented. But at the same time, the numbers will be the numbers. And so, as we satisfy these equations that have got to be solved, I don’t have any idea of where that will lead us at this point,” Vaughan says.

Just about every House district in Davidson County, meanwhile, mainly in the southern and eastern portions, saw growth, which could give Republicans an opportunity to redraw lines and possibly target some of their least favorite House Democrats in the blue county.

State Rep. Bob Freeman, a Davidson County Democrat who will serve on the committee, says he hopes to see an “open and transparent process” and so far has no reason to believe it won’t be.

Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“I will work to ensure that Nashville has representation that reflects the will of her people. We encourage that by having an open process and having people pay attention to what’s happening,” he says.

As districts are redrawn in the coming weeks, Freeman says it will require a “give and take to work through the 99-piece puzzle in the House and 33-piece puzzle in the Senate.”

“I think that we can all agree that gerrymandering has the potential to jeopardize our democracy if allowed to run unchecked,” Freeman says.

Maneuvering for an advantage

Talk about gerrymandering surfaces every 10 years, no matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge of the redistricting process. Republicans controlled the process a decade ago, and with supermajorities in the House and Senate, they’ll have the final say again.

Vaughan, however, contends any discussion about gerrymandering, the drawing of lines to give one party an advantage, is “premature.”

“Of course, we want to reduce that as much as possible,” Vaughan says.

No map has been produced yet, and the committee isn’t expected to hold its first meeting for a week or two. Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson could not be reached for comment for this article.

House Deputy Speaker Pat Marsh, who is serving on the committee, says it is clear the population is moving from the northeast and western part of the state to the middle.

Marsh notes the committee must follow constitutional rules, such as making a certain number of counties whole and providing for minority representation. He also admits part of the task will be keeping members “halfway happy” about their districts.

“I hope everybody can get what they want and what they deserve, but somebody is going to lose out in the west and the northeast. There’s just not enough people. Probably two districts are going to have to combine into one,” Marsh says.

Such a move could pit two representatives against each other in the next election for one seat.

At the same time, the committee will have to come up with a “fair” map to avoid a legal challenge, Marsh says.

Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, led an unsuccessful challenge of the Senate redistricting map 10 years ago and presented an alternative to the House plan. At the time, his home address was drawn into the same district Rep. Cooper represented, forcing him to move to another part of Memphis to seek re-election.

In talking to principal players in the process, Hardaway says he is told Shelby County will have 13 or 14 House districts because most of the population is moving east.

If (Congress passes the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act,) we're sure going to use it as a tool to help give guidance to our Republican colleagues. I'm sure they want to do the right thing. They just sometimes have to have a reminder from the federal government on how to do the right thing.

– Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis

“If the Republicans who serve out of Shelby County and out of West Tennessee … want to look after the interests of Shelby Countians, then we’ll have the same number of districts,” Hardaway says.

To do that and to maintain minority seats as a priority, the numbers in Shelby districts will have to be drawn 5% below the allowed deviation, he says. 

“But the chances are, we’re going to end up with 13 districts, and somebody’s going to end up in somebody else’s district,” he says.

In light of that, Democrats will have to create their own alternative maps, “keeping in line with the state Constitution and with the ’65 Voting Rights Act,” Hardaway contends. 

If Congress passes the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, Democrats will have the “strength of the federal government” behind them to protect those minority districts, he says. 

“If they pass it, we’re sure going to use it as a tool to help give guidance to our Republican colleagues,” Hardaway says. “I’m sure they want to do the right thing. They just sometimes have to have a reminder from the federal government on how to do the right thing and that one man, one vote is important.”

Otherwise, it’s going to be “an uphill battle,” which could lead to a legal challenge, he says.

Senate conundrum

Rural Republicans in the Senate also will deal with falling population, and keeping them in their seats could require some creative map-drawing.

Republican Sen. Ed Jackson’s District 27 is 13.2% off the optimal number with Madison, Crockett, Dyer, Lake and Lauderdale counties losing population.

Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Likewise, Republican Sen. John Stevens of Huntingdon in District 24 is 9% below with Benton, Carroll, Gibson, Henry, Obion and Weakley counties’ numbers falling. The same is true for Republican Sen. Page Walley of Bolivar in District 26, representing Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, Henderson and McNairy counties.

In contrast, Republican Sen. Jack Johnson in Williamson County is 18.3% over the best number, and Republican Sen. Mark Pody of Lebanon is 12.2% above the optimal number in District 17.

Republican Sen. Bill Powers of District 22 is 15.6% over the preferred number in Stewart, Houston and Montgomery counties, meaning Montgomery could nearly become a Senate seat unto itself. 

Similarly, Republican Sen. Dawn White’s District 13 seat in part of Rutherford County is 19.1% over the best number.

In Davidson County, Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s District 21 is 12% above the optimal figure, while Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore’s District 19 is 8.6% high. Democratic Sen. Heidi Campbell of Davidson County, who defeated Republican Steve Dickerson two years ago, is 6.7% above the preferred number in District 20.

Map drawers could move Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin out of Davidson County, giving him all of Sumner County. He represents a sliver of eastern Davidson.

But, as Camper points out, until the committee meets and starts evaluating the numbers, it’s going to be difficult to determine whose districts could be affected the most.

“I don’t want to get in front of the driver,” Camper says.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.