The Tennessee State Capitol with gates locked. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Redistricting maps haven’t been released, but some House Democrats are already complaining that supermajority Republicans are trying to draw them out of existence.
“It’s a huge power play in Middle Tennessee,” says House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie.
Because of population loss, Upper East Tennessee as well as urban Memphis and rural West Tennessee are expected to lose seats, possibly one in each area.
But Middle Tennessee is becoming the political tug-of-war for new maps, mainly Davidson County, according to Dixie.
Some Democrats believe House map drawers are creating a new district in affluent southern Davidson County that could yield a Republican House member.
Such a move could push Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman into the same district with Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who lives in the Belmont area, pitting them against each other in a primary.
Clemmons also has said he’s seen a map showing he would be drawn into the same district with Democratic Reps. Mike Stewart, who lives in East Nashville, and Jason Potts of Antioch, who is not seeking re-election.
Clemmons said he was told he could not take a picture of the map because it was only a “concept.”
“I am not sure what that means, but I hope it means it’s a bad joke. The voters of Nashville deserve much better than what is currently on paper,” Clemmons said recently.
Likewise, Dixie says he is fighting another move in which the North Nashville street where he lives could be drawn into the same district with Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, whose 50th District runs all the way from Bellevue in southwest Davidson up the western side of the county to Goodlettsville.
Dixie, who defeated Mitchell in a race for caucus chairman, says the question is not whether Mitchell could represent his constituents who are now in the 54th House District.
The caucus chairman, who is Black, contends he is a target because he’s outspoken in legislative meetings and critical of Republicans on Twitter. Dixie’s North Nashville has a larger percentage of Black voters than Mitchell’s district, and removal of a minority representative could cause legal problems for the Legislature.
“It really just hurts our constituents because they’re not getting the best representation, when you put somebody in the district they’re not familiar with or they really don’t have anything in common with,” Dixie says.
House Democratic Caucus members who serve on a House redistricting committee have not been involved in drawing the maps. Instead, they’re being put together by a group of Republicans in closed meetings, Dixie says.
Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville Republican who is chairing the House redistricting committee, is hoping to present a map in late December.
Johnson would not deny the claims made by Clemmons and Dixie that their homes are being redrawn into other lawmakers’ districts. But he maintains the redistricting plan, which hasn’t been presented, is not political in nature.
“It’s constitutional and everything we’re doing is what we have to do every 10 years,” Johnson says.
As of a week ago, committee members hadn’t started considering congressional districts, according to Johnson.
A Senate redistricting committee is set for Dec. 14 when it will present maps submitted by the public. No House redistricting meeting has been scheduled for the next two weeks.
The Legislature will consider approval of the maps when it reconvenes in January.
Democrats controlled the redistricting process until a decade ago when Republicans gained a majority in the House and Senate and took control of the process. Republicans have argued that the map they came up with in 2012 was the first map to withstand a legal challenge in decades.
With a state population of 6.95 million people and 99 House seats, each district is to have an optimum number of 70,202 residents. State rules allow a 5% variance above or below that number.
Because of population losses in West and East Tennessee and big gains in Middle Tennessee, Johnson says the map makers have little leeway in those areas butting up against other states.
Johnson declined to provide details about the plan. He contends, however, the map drawers are not gerrymandering, the term used to describe redistricting that limits the ability of one party to compete politically.
House Democrats aren’t the only ones, though, who could be moved from one district to another.
Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Paris Republican who is not seeking another term, says he heard his home in the 75th District, which includes Henry, Benton and Stewart counties, could be merged into another district with Republican Rep. Jay Reedy of Erin in the 74th District. Reedy’s district includes Houston, Humphreys and part of Montgomery County.
Griffey, who caught the ire of House Speaker Cameron Sexton this year and was removed from committees for a week, says the redistricting had no bearing on his decision to seek a Circuit Court judgeship instead of running for re-election to the House.
“These judicial races only come up once every eight years, and it’s been my honor and privilege to serve everyone in the 75th House District. I’ve always been a proponent of term limits. …,” Griffey says. “I’ve been up there two terms, and there’s other people who can do what I do up there. I really do want to get back to the practice of law or in the legal field a little more. And that’s my sorta first love.”
Griffey says he’s heard up to five West Tennessee seats could be affected. Another part of his district could go to Rep. Tandy Darby’s 76th District, which includes Weakley and parts of Obion and Carroll counties. At the same time, Republican Rep. Curtis Halford’s 79th District, which includes Gibson and part of Carroll County, needs more residents.
In addition, Griffey says he’s heard Montgomery County could receive three full House seats because of heavy growth. One of those likely would not have an incumbent.
The Tennessee Democratic Party said months ago it is likely to file suit over the redistricting plan. It is monitoring the situation with its attorneys and preparing to take legal action if necessary once state maps come out, says Chairman Hendrell Remus.
He noted Republicans also could be trying to eliminate Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville. Her desk was moved into a hallway earlier this year at the Cordell Hull Building after she criticized House Speaker Sexton publicly.
Remus said the Democratic Party also is keeping up with redistricting at the county level and is prepared to file litigation against Haywood County where county commissioners refused to adopt a map that created two majority minority districts, which had been advised by an attorney not to dilute those districts. At least one Fayette County commissioner said the commission didn’t take those majority Black areas into consideration when deciding on the district map.
“We anticipate wherever there’s an issue we’re going to be front and center on trying to make sure we’re doing our part to give people a fair map, let communities pick their representatives and not representatives pick their voters,” Remus says.
The Tennessee Democratic Party is set to introduce a new redistricting initiative within the next two weeks.
Scott Golden, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, could not be reached Monday for comment.
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