House panel to consider congressional redistricting plan — yet undone

House Select Committee on Redistricting is set to meet January 12

By: - January 4, 2022 10:07 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

A Republican-controlled House committee is set to approve a congressional redistricting plan next week, though the proposal is not complete.

Democrats are concerned the map will split Davidson County in an effort to put more Republicans in Congress. The current 5th Congressional District contains all of Davidson and Dickson counties and part of Cheatham County.

But at least one political scientist contends such a move could create more Democratic seats in the long run. Redistricting is done by the Legislature every 10 years in response to U.S. population changes to make sure people receive equitable representation in the Legislature and Congress.

The House Select Committee on Redistricting is set to meet at 10 a.m. Jan. 12, the day after the 112th General Assembly convenes for the year.

Plans for the state Senate and Congress are to be considered, along with proposals by House members and the public. But if a similar meeting in December is any indication, a Republican leadership plan will be recommended to a sitting House committee for approval and, ultimately, passage by the full Legislature.

House Republican leaders are staying quiet about the maps, as they did in the run-up to releasing their House plan. And, apparently, few, if any, members of Tennessee’s nine-person congressional delegation have been consulted or seen the proposed map either.

State Rep. Pat Marsh, who co-chairs the committee, predicts either a vote or a long discussion if enough information is available. He wasn’t certain Monday whether the plan would break up Davidson.

“We’ve seen all kind of proposals from different folks. I’m not sure how the wind is blowing right now,” said Marsh, a Shelbyville Republican.

State Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat who serves on the redistricting committee, said Monday he’s not sure about House leaders’ strategy.

“I wish that we had more involvement (by) our sitting congressional members in this process. I have not heard from any of them, with the exception of Jim Cooper, who presented a map to the committee,” Freeman said. 

No other members of Congress have submitted maps or made presentations to the committee, though Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis attended the panel’s mid-December meeting.

“I just find it very odd. I would think they would want to be involved in this process,” Freeman added.

Freeman is concerned primarily that Davidson County could be split to water down the vote for Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, and make him vulnerable to a Republican challenger . 

Cooper presented a map in the fall of 2021 that he said would keep Davidson County whole and avoid “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” 

Cooper and other Democrats say splitting Davidson County could create a situation in which Davidson County would not have a member in Congress.

“Nashville is the economic engine of our state, and the wants and needs of Nashville are unique, and having the potential for one, two or representatives who don’t live in Nashville could be very damaging to our future success,” Freeman said.

Population increases in Middle Tennessee counties are directly related to Nashville’s growth, Freeman added.

Cooper will attend the Jan. 12 meeting, according to spokeswoman Katie Feldhaus.

“It’s encouraging that all of the publicly-submitted congressional maps appear to respect Nashvillians and mostly keep Davidson County whole. But the House redistricting committee advanced its own plan for the state House that disregarded much of the input from and desires of outside individuals and groups. The state Legislature should stay true to its claims of conducting a truly transparent and bipartisan process,” Feldhaus said.

Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell of Davidson County contends redistricting will be the most important item on the Legislature’s agenda when it returns next week.

The House map approved by the panel in December puts him in the same district with fellow Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. But he also raised questions about the potential congressional map.

“I’d hate for one of the largest cities in the country to … have no representation for people, and that’s what (it) looks like they’re trying to do so far with Congress,” Mitchell said. 

He believes Republicans at the national level are putting pressure on state GOP leaders to redraw districts so they can reclaim control of Congress. Democrats won a majority of congressional seats in the 2020 election.

Marsh said he initially agreed with Cooper that Davidson County should be kept whole. But after hearing testimony from Republicans, he was concerned those in the 5th District weren’t receiving any representation in Congress.

“The conservatives have no representation. I thought, this is really a dilemma, and it sure deserves discussion,” Marsh said.

Marsh, though, acknowledged that Tennesseans living in other districts could face the same situation if they have a Republican representing them. He said he has not gotten any pressure from the national level to boost the number of Republican seats.

Republican Reps. Sam Whitson of Franklin and Kevin Vaughan of Collierville, both members of the House redistricting committee, said they haven’t seen the congressional map yet, either.

“Still being conjured,” Vaughan said Monday. He said he hopes to see a copy before next week’s meeting.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler, chief of staff for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, expects Republican leaders will move forward with the map of their choice, regardless of other proposals.

“The way a politician thinks about redistricting and whatever bad publicity they might get when they introduce the map, they know the result far outweighs a couple of days of bad stories,” Syler said.

Most voters are unconcerned with redistricting and will forget it quickly, he added.

But breaking up Davidson County comes with “risk” for incumbent Republicans who are already “over-performing” in seven of nine state congressional districts, Syler said. In those situations they’ve been winning elections by more than 20 percentage points. 

If districts are drawn to favor Republicans in eight of nine seats, keeping those seats might not be “sustainable,” he said.

By breaking up Davidson County three or four ways, “you have, in essence, breached this dam of Democrats who have self-gerrymandered themselves in Davidson County and put them into all these other districts with these suburban voters, some of which are trending a little bit Democratic,” Syler said.

Democratic candidates, some of whom are funding their own campaigns in Davidson County, could create problems for Republicans in those newly-drawn districts, especially over a 10-year cycle, Syler said. He noted incumbents won’t favor such a move.

Another problem for Republicans is that five of their seven members live in Cookeville or farther east, while two-thirds of the state’s growth in the last decade took place in seven Middle Tennessee counties.

“Even without trying to do things with Davidson County, they’ve got challenges if they’re going to keep all their incumbents happy,” Syler said.

Because of those population shifts, districts for Republican U.S. Reps. John Rose of Cookeville and Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg are expected to shift east, because rural voters are moving to the center of the state, he said.

Former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is considering a congressional run, said Monday she “deliberately stepped back” from the process because she understands the difficulty of redistricting.

“I’ve heard there’s four or five different maps floating around,” she said. “I’ve heard what some of those maps might look like, but I just don’t know.”

In order for her to run, the lines would have to be drawn to make a congressional race winnable, she said.

“I don’t know whether they’re going to go into the rural counties with Davidson County or into the more urban areas. I just don’t know,” she said.

Deputy Speaker Curtis Johnson did not answer a phone call Monday seeking comment. A spokeswoman for House Republicans also was unavailable for comment.

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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.