Memphis reps perturbed over redistricting plan

By: - December 14, 2021 3:32 pm
Democratic Rep. Torrey Harris, District 90, came out to get a last word with voters at Peace Lutheran Church-ELCA in north Memphis during the 2020 election on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by © Karen Pulfer Focht)

Democratic Rep. Torrey Harris, District 90, came out to get a last word with voters at Peace Lutheran Church-ELCA in north Memphis during the 2020 election on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by © Karen Pulfer Focht)

Two Memphis Democrats, the youngest in the state, are upset that a Republican-controlled redistricting plan to be unveiled Friday will pit them against each other in the same House district.

Likewise, a Knoxville Democrat critical of House Republican leadership is likely to be drawn into another Democrat’s district, forcing them to run against each other in 2022. 

That makes at least five Democrats who say they’ve been placed into the same district with a fellow caucus member in the redistricting process. Republicans hold a 73-26 advantage in the House and a 27-6 edge in the Senate, and these moves could further stifle Democrats’ ability to pass legislation or voice dissent.

Rep. Torrey Harris, a Memphis freshman legislator who defeated veteran Democratic Rep. John DeBerry in 2020, said Tuesday he believes his home in the 90th District has been penciled into the 91st District represented by Democratic Rep. London Lamar. They are the two youngest members in the House, and Harris is one of only two openly LGBTQ legislators in the chamber.

“A lot of this, I believe, is some retaliation because I did beat someone (DeBerry) who was an incumbent who is still employed with the state,” Harris said. “I do think a lot of it also is because of people’s own personal dislike for LGBTQ representation.”

Lamar believes Republicans ran the proposal by Democrats, who didn’t necessarily support it but knew it was coming. Harris, in contrast, was caught off guard.

Rep. Torrey Harris, one of two LGBTQ members of the Tennessee General Assembly, says Republicans have targeted him because he beat one of their allies and because of their “own personal dislike for LGBTQ representation.

In response, Lamar contends Shelby County’s Democratic Caucus members should come up with a contingency plan to allow veteran legislators to “exit gracefully” and make room for the next generation of House leadership for Memphis and Shelby.

“I hope our party comes together and fights to keep our districts whole, and if that’s not the case, that we have a real conversation about a succession plan in leadership that we can truly build a bench of effective, knowledgeable leaders who can get things done and those who have been serving a while can figure out how they are going to pass the baton to those who are worthy of having it,” Lamar said.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper responded Tuesday saying, “There is no plan at all in which Democrats in the House of Representatives would do anything to harm the districts of our fellow party members. We have not and will not make any of our caucus members vulnerable to unfair redistricting practices. All 26 Democrats in our caucus work hard on behalf of their constituents. As leader it is my responsibility to be the voice of my members, and I will continue to advocate for them and their constituents.”

It is unclear whether Harris and Lamar, who are close friends, would run against each other in 2022 if they wind up living in the same district. 

A House redistricting committee is set to meet Friday when Republicans’ proposed map is to be shown to the public for the first time. Redistricting is done every 10 years to keep up with population changes and to abide by federal election laws.

A Senate redistricting committee accepted map proposals from the public Tuesday, but Republicans did not present their plan. It is expected to receive the most consideration.

Harris says the redistricting is not a “fair process,” and he argues that District 90 will be losing a “strong voice” and effective legislator.

Harris also says the plan discriminates against him, but he was told he didn’t have much leeway for a legal challenge because the map reconfigures Democratic Rep. Dwayne Thompson’s Cordova District 96 seat to make it a majority minority seat. Harris’ district is located in central Memphis, just north of Lamar’s district.

Harris believes Republicans are targeting him because he defeated DeBerry, who sided with Republicans in several major votes and is now senior adviser for Gov. Bill Lee. But Lamar points out seniority has played a role historically for Republicans and Democrats in drawing district maps.

State Rep. London Lamar. (Photo: John Partipilo)
State Rep. London Lamar is arguing to keep both her and Harris’s districts as is. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lamar said Tuesday she will advocate for keeping Districts 90 and 91 whole because of the work she and Harris have done. 

Despite population loss in urban Memphis, she contends the Legislature should eliminate Republican seats because GOP numbers are declining in Shelby County, a Democratic stronghold.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville is hitting the same hurdle. She says map makers are drawing her District 13 home into District 15 represented by Democratic Rep. Sam McKenzie of central Knoxville.

Johnson says the plan splits her 16th Precinct, which has been described by former lawmaker Victor Ashe as a bellwether precinct, and puts her address into a reconfigured District 15. 

Johnson drew the ire of House Speaker Cameron Sexton last year because of critical comments and her desk was moved into a Cordell Hull Building hallway. She also is one of the most outspoken Democrats in floor debate.

“They like to say this has been a more transparent process, but there’s nothing transparent. You’re allowing comment, but people are commenting on maps they haven’t seen,” Johnson said, adding all of the work has been done behind closed doors. 

Neither she nor the other Democrats affected have been allowed to see the full map. Democrats serving on the ad hoc redistricting committee have not played a role in drawing new lines.

“I guess it’s legal. I don’t think I’d call it ethical. And, quite frankly, it’s a huge disservice to the people in these districts where they’ve drawn so many reps into other reps’ districts,” Johnson said. “The people have said who they want to represent them, and then they’re making it impossible for those folks to do so in the next election.”

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, says her precinct is liable to be redrawn into Rep. Sam McKenzie's. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, says her precinct is liable to be redrawn into Rep. Sam McKenzie’s. (Photo: John Partipilo)

She adds, “All because 73 members is just not enough.”

Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville Republican who chairs the House redistricting committee, didn’t respond to a phone call Tuesday. But he previously said the plan is not “political in nature,” nor  does it gerrymander and will meet constitutional requirements.

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 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.

Despite Deputy Speaker Johnson’s contention, even Davidson County Democrats who tend to be outspoken in the General Assembly could be facing a difficult time in the 2022 election.

As previously reported by the Tennessee Lookout, Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who lives in the Belmont area in House District 55, says map makers are putting him in the same district with Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart, who lives in East Nashville in District 51, and Rep. Jason Potts of Antioch in District 59. Potts is not running for re-election.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of District 54 also says his home is being redrawn into House District 50 represented by Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell.

 

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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 from the Tennessee Press Association.

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