Congressman pushes to keep Davidson County whole in redistricting

By: - September 8, 2021 5:34 pm
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper campaigning at Cathedral of Praise in North Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, shown here campaigning in 2020, urged legislative redistricting committee members to keep the 5th District intact on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper urged a House redistricting committee Wednesday to keep Davidson County together rather than split it up to create a potential Republican seat.

“We’re one community here. We’re one of the best communities in the world. To break that up would be tragic,” Cooper said. 

With a state population of 6.9 million, the ideal congressional district in Tennessee would have 767,871 residents.

The veteran congressman, though, said his request is “not about me.” He is being challenged in the Democratic primary by community activist Odessa Kelly.

Republicans already hold a 7-2 edge in the Tennessee House congressional delegation.

But talk has circulated for months that the Republican-controlled House will redraw the district to make it harder on Cooper to win re-election and give a Republican such as former House Speaker Beth Harwell a chance to pick up a seat, possibly through a combination of southern Davidson and Williamson counties. 

“Whoever represents Nashville deserves to represent the whole city, not pieces of it. The city is a living organism, it’s not a pound of flesh. You can’t cut up a living thing and keep it alive,” Cooper said.

Cooper, whose 5th Congressional District takes in Dickson County and part of Cheatham County, pointed out the redistricting committee is made up of 12 Republicans and four Democrats. “We’re barely alive. We’re an endangered species.”

A Senate version of the committee is expected to be appointed later in September and could include Democrats, though it would be much smaller.

Whoever represents Nashville deserves to represent the whole city, not pieces of it. The city is a living organism, it's not a pound of flesh. You can't cut up a living thing and keep it alive.

– Congressman Jim Cooper on keeping the 5th Congressional District as is

House Majority Leader William Lamberth declined to commit Wednesday to keeping Davidson County in one congressional district.

“We just began the process today. I think it would be ridiculously premature to comment on what any district would look like. No decisions have been made,” Lamberth said.

James Garrett, chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party, predicted Davidson would not be split but that the 5th Congressional District could lose Dickson County.

“He’s looking at downtown Nashville with such a majority of Democrats,” Garrett said of Cooper.

But because Middle Tennessee is overpopulated, with anywhere from 30% to 42% growth, those burgeoning counties will have to reach toward the eastern and western parts of the state, which lost population in the last decade, he said.

“I certainly don’t like it,” Garrett said of keeping Davidson together. “But I think the reality of the matter is that’s what’s going to happen.”

Based on a preliminary look at the population numbers, Memphis could lose an urban minority legislative seat, and rural West Tennessee, which has tended to be Republican in recent years, could lose a seat.

Upper East Tennessee also could lose a House seat. But Rutherford and Williamson counties, which saw growth of more than 42% above the ideal district number are likely to pick up new seats, and Montgomery County, which saw heavy growth, could gain a seat with the potential for a Democrat to win.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth said it’s too early in the redistricting process to speculate on the redrawing of congressional districts. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The federal government sent out guidelines recently ordering state legislatures to follow Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to avoid discriminating against minority voters.

Doug Kufner, spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, said Wednesday, “We have in the past and will continue to comply with the Voting Rights Act. … As Speaker Sexton has previously said, he is confident the redistricting process will produce both fair and constitutional redistricting plans that are representative of all Tennesseans.”

Democrats, however, claim Republicans previously cut Chattanooga’s African-American neighborhood into two Senate districts and included those with white populations in rural Bradley County to dilute the minority vote block.

The minority party also contends map makers 10 years ago packed predominantly Black neighborhoods into one district, which led to only one minority House member rather than two over the previous decade.

Bringing in the public

Democrats serving on the Republican-controlled committee sought Wednesday to enable the general public to submit redistricting plans with a focus on one district.

Under House rules adopted Wednesday, any plans submitted have to include a proposal for the entire state, according to House general counsel Doug Himes.

However, Lamberth encouraged people to submit statewide plans but to let map drawers know they are focusing on one district in particular. Expertise on every district across the state isn’t necessary, he said.

“If there is an area you’ve worked on extensively that is kind of in your backyard or your neighborhood, we want to know that. But we want to ask folks, submit a statewide plan,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

Members of the public urged the House redistricting committee to make “transparency” the hallmark of its proceedings and to hold hearings across the state to take input on plans.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper said Wednesday the House Democratic Caucus plans to put on several hearings throughout the year as proposals become public. Several maps are believed to be in the works, either by House members or advocacy groups and political organizations.

“You heard people talk today about submitting an individual plan for our county because we don’t understand the rest of the state,” she said. “They might want to submit that to our caucus to put into a full plan that we may propose.”

The first hearing is likely to be held in September, Camper said, noting it is important to make people feel like they’re part of the redistricting process.

The Memphis Democrat said she doesn’t believe Republicans tried to put up a “roadblock” on single-district proposals Wednesday. But she pointed out the rules adopted by the committee require statewide plans.

Rep. Bob Freeman, a Davidson County Democrat, told the committee submitting a statewide plan appears to be a “more cumbersome process.”

“My desire would have been for us to be able to submit singular maps. But I think you heard Leader Lamberth say, please submit those maps anyway and let us take that into consideration,” Freeman said.

Freeman encouraged communities to hold meetings and come up with proposals that could be submitted to members.

With a state population of 6,910,840, House districts should have an ideal number of 69,806 and Senate districts 209,419

Under redistricting guidelines the committee adopted Wednesday, each district must be represented by single members with 99 in the House and 33 in the Senate.

Constitutional requirements are set for one person one vote, with redistricting based on geographic features, boundaries and population figures from the 2020 census.

Under the Voting Rights Act, no more than 30 counties may be split to attach to other counties or parts of other counties to form multi-county districts, according to Himes

But a county cannot be split more than once in an effort to reach the ideal district number, he said.

Plans can be submitted by House members, and outside plans submitted through House members are to be delivered to the redistricting committee by Nov. 12 at noon.

Outside proposals must use the same population figures and geographic divisions used by the House with the required number of contiguous, single-member districts. They also must comply with the Voting Rights Act and U.S. and state constitutions, in addition to being submitted in an electronic format. They should also be filed with a report containing the total population of each district and the relative deviation and overall range of the plan as a whole.

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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.