Republican redistricting plan draws fire from Democrats pitted against each other

By: - December 17, 2021 10:35 pm
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, called on Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday to take executive action to freeze laws on open gun carry and guns in car trunks.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, (Photo: John Partipilo)

A Republican-controlled House redistricting committee pitted Democrats against each other with a plan unveiled Friday afternoon and still difficult to decipher.

The committee, in a voice vote, recommended passage of a plan that shifts several outspoken Democrats into districts that would force them to move or run against each other in the 2022 election while leaving Republican incumbents alone, except for two East Tennessee members. The map is available on the Legislature’s website but does not provide descriptions of districts down to street level.

The committee rejected a House Democrats’ plan that kept 14 Shelby County districts intact and split 23 counties, including part of Shelby. The House Republicans’ plan, which was unveiled Friday afternoon, split 30 counties, the maximum allowed under federal law.

The plan, which is required following the 2020 census, will go through the House committee system when the Legislature convenes in January.

Deputy House Speaker Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, who chaired the ad hoc redistricting committee, said the process has been one of the most “transparent” processes ever taken up by the House and said political considerations had nothing to do with it.

House attorney Doug Himes, who was selected to draw the maps, said afterward the pairings had to be made because of population shifts within counties. 

Himes also acknowledged he is a “nonpartisan” employee working in the “partisan” job of redistricting, and noted this process was not “dissimilar” from what was done previously. 

Democrats controlled redistricting for most of Tennessee’s history before Republicans gained a majority and controlled the process in 2012 and again this year.

Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson, a Clarksville Republican who chaired the committee, considered it one of the most “transparent” redistricting processes ever taken up by the House. He was echoed by House Majority Leader William Lamberth of Portland.

Even though Himes called the process “political” in nature, Johnson said political considerations had nothing to do with the redistricting. He also denied it is not an effort to punish Democrats who tend to be critical of the Republican supermajority.

“The numbers are what they are, and we were fair and constitutional throughout the process,” Johnson said.

Pressed on the matter, Johnson said, “As we were going through the process, Republican and Democrat, we don’t look at that.”

Himes pointed out that Davidson County saw “significant” growth in the southeast part of the county and in downtown Nashville but not as much in north Nashville and other parts of the outer ring.

Three districts had to move to Middle Tennessee because of major growth in the area around Nashville. 

One came from Shelby County, which is dropping to 13 seats from 14, and where freshman Democratic Rep. Torrey Harris of Memphis was drawn into the same district with Democratic Rep. London Lamar.

Nashville, Tenn., Jume 1 - State Reps. London Lamar (D- Memphis) in red and Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) in mask facing camera at vigil. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Nashville, Tenn., Jume 1 – State Reps. London Lamar (D- Memphis) in red and Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) in mask facing camera will both see changes in their districts. (Photo: Alex Kent)

New districts were created in Rutherford, Sumner and Davidson counties. One of Davidson’s seats is considered a “coalition” district because it has a combination of racial or ethnic population of more than 50%, according to Himes.

Eight seats without incumbents were drawn, with openings in Davidson, Williamson, Montgomery and Knox counties. 

In Davidson County, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of north Nashville was drawn into District 50 with Rep. Bo Mitchell.

Likewise, Democratic Reps. John Ray Clemmons of south Nashville, Mike Stewart of east Nashville and Jason Potts of Antioch were drawn into District 52 together. Potts is not running for re-election.

In Knoxville, the plan keeps Republican seats intact but draws outspoken Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson into District 15 with Democratic Rep. Sam McKenzie. Still, an open seat is being made in Knoxville.

On the Republican side of the ledger, the plan puts Rep. Glen Casada, who is not seeking re-election, into the same district with Rep. Sam Whitson and shifts outgoing Rep. Bruce Griffey into Rep. Jay Reedy’s district. 

The only competition the adopted plan spurs between Republicans would be between Rep. Jerry Sexton and Rick Eldridge in upper East Tennessee. It is unclear whether they both plan to seek re-election.

It's very partisan and it's racially motivated and politicall motivated . . . If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck.

– House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville.

Himes noted in his presentation that he talked to all 99 House members, though he admitted not all of them were allowed to give input.

Democrats called the committee process a “sham.”

“It’s very partisan, and it’s racially motivated and politically motivated,” Dixie said. “This is probably the most partisan process that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Legislature.”

Democrats had no “input” into how their districts were drawn, Dixie said. He declined to speculate whether he and other Democrats were placed in each other’s districts because of their outspoken nature but said, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”

Harris defeated John DeBerry, who voted with Republicans on key issues, in 2020 and believes he was targeted because of his victory and LGBTQ identification.

“It is racially motivated for sure. I do believe it wasn’t a fair process,” Harris said, noting he and several colleagues weren’t given a chance to speak to Himes or others who drew the map.

Harris contends his Memphis district will be “under-represented” because the urban area will be losing a seat even though it didn’t drop population. Some 30,000 constituents will be divided between the rest of the county’s districts, Democrats said.

“The whole Shelby County is under-represented, so for that, obviously, we know what their motivation was,” Harris added.

Republicans contended their plan maintained the same number of minority majority seats as the current plan.

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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.