Jimmie Garland of the NAACP Tennessee testifying. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Republican-controlled panels approved legislative and congressional district maps Tuesday despite criticism they would dilute African-American and Latino votes.
In spite of evidence that Black voters would lose their influence in elections, the Senate Judiciary and House State Government committees approved three redistricting plans for new state House, state Senate and congressional maps. New maps are drawn every decade after the federal census to reapportion state and federal districts to ensure equity at the polls.
Senators made last-minute changes to the state Senate map to make Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore’s Davidson County district a minority majority district. That move gave the state four minority majority districts statewide, including three in Shelby County.
But the map wasn’t available for review at the meeting, and it wasn’t enough to keep her from questioning each plan and raising questions about the impact of redistricting on Black voters.
Members of Black Voters Matter Fund, The Equity Alliance, TIRRC and the NAACP held signs urging the committee to reject the plan as Gilmore challenged plans to split Davidson County into three congressional districts, effectively changing the 5th District from roughly 34% Black vote, 41% minorities, to about 12% and the Hispanic vote to 10%.
The 5th District, now represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, would shift from Davidson County, Dickson and part of Cheatham County to Lewis, Marshall, Maury, Williamson, Davidson and Wilson.
Democrats say the plan will hurt both rural and urban voters.
This is not a just cause they are fighting for. And power maintained this way will not last.
– Jimmie Garland, vice-president, NAACP of Tennessee, of Tennessee Republican lawmakers
In addition, Gilmore criticized a House plan that puts Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Black House member from north Nashville, into the same district with Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell. In addition, she pointed out the plan pits two Black House members, Democratic Reps. London Lamar and Torrey Harris, against each other in Memphis and Democratic Reps. Gloria Johnson and Sam McKenzie, who is Black, against each other in Knoxville. In two instances, the House Republican Caucus paired Democratic incumbents against each other while creating two vacant districts in Nashville and Knoxville.
Map drawers also made a change in the 9th Congressional District plan, affecting Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, by splitting Tipton County further and putting the eastern part of the county into the 8th Congressional District represented by Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff.
Democrats and other critics contend the congressional redistricting plan is designed to give the Republican Party an 8-1 edge in the Tennessee delegation, instead of the current 7-2. Each district contains the same number of 767,871, except for one that has one more person.
But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, argued that Democrats gerrymandered district maps for years to give themselves an advantage. He noted the map drawn by Republicans in 2012 was the first one to withstand a legal challenge in 40 years.
Republicans continually point toward a 4th Congressional District adopted in 1992 that ran from Savannah in West Tennessee to Morristown in upper East Tennessee as an egregious gerrymander. It was represented by Cooper in the early 1990s, then Republican Rep. Van Hilleary, then Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis when it was redrawn, before he lost to Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
However, Gilmore countered, saying, “The unintended consequences should not be that we are diluting the power of the Black vote,” Gilmore said. “In almost all instances, Black voters will not be able to vote for their candidate of choice.”
Bell acknowledged after Tuesday’s meeting that the Republican plan adopted is not as compact as a Democratic plan presented by Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville. The Democrats’ plan was rejected in a 7-2 vote after the Republicans’ plan was approved and sent to the Calendar and Rules Committee to be scheduled for a floor vote.
“I think it’s more compact than the one we’re under now, and the one we’re under now was much more compact than the one the Democrats put forward in 2000,” Bell said.
Asked if this is an effort to water down Cooper’s 5th District with Republican votes and give the GOP an 8-1 advantage, Bell would only say, “I think the map we presented will withstand constitutional muster.”
He conceded, however, that Democrats could win the 5th, 6th and 7th districts in two to three voting cycles. “It very well could happen, it could happen this time,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson also defended the congressional map, contending it will give Davidson County three members in Congress. The criticism is that they might not live in Davidson County.
Under questioning by Sen. Katrina Robinson, a Memphis Democrat, Johnson conceded that the Senate Republican Caucus hired outside counsel to provide advice on the redistricting map but he declined to identify the attorney.
He later confirmed it was John Ryder, who has been chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, chairman of the RNC Redistricting Committee, and a delegate who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. Johnson, a Franklin Republican, said he declined to answer during the committee meeting because he didn’t want to be put on the spot. However, he said the caucus reported on disclosure forms payments to Ryder.
Johnson pointed out that Robinson declined to answer when he asked her if the Senate Democratic Caucus hired its own outside counsel.
Several people in the audience cackled when Johnson declined to divulge Ryder’s name. But it had been reported in the Tennessee Journal already when he spoke at the caucus’ fall retreat and told senators to talk about the redistricting plan on the phone only, instead of putting anything in writing.
Jimmie Garland, vice president of NAACP’s Tennessee branch, accused Republican lawmakers of focusing on keeping their party in control rather than drawing fair district maps.
“This is not a just cause that they’re fighting (for),” Garland said, arguing the maps are designed merely to keep Republicans in power. “And power maintained this way will not last.”
Any time, a large number of minority residents are split and moved into districts with a large number of white residents, “you are splitting the vote, you are dissecting, you are causing the Black people not to be able to elect candidates of their choice,” Garland said.
During the House committee meeting, Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, pointed out Davidson has been kept whole for more than 140 years. He noted Davidson has a metropolitan form of government and its residents have shared interests.
Doug Himes, House legal counsel, pointed out Davidson County has been split previously. At different times, small portions were represented by former U.S. Reps. Bart Gordon and Marsha Blackburn, now a U.S. senator.
Republicans have also noted that Shelby County has been split. But Shelby’s population is too large for it to be contained in one district.
Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, contended that Davidson County collects 33% of the state’s tax revenue and questioned why it would be split.
Himes responded that it complies with statutory guidelines.
“It saddens me for the people of Davidson County,” Beck said, in part because of the potential for poor constituent service.
Beck also questioned Himes about a “fishtail” in the map going down the street where Rep. Dixie lives, placing him outside the 54th District, putting him in a district with an 80% white vote.
Himes said he probably wasn’t the best person to ask but noted that it’s a bad plan to pack African Americans into one or two districts. The counsel said the plan does comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Afterward, Dixie was apoplectic.
“It’s not about me and my house. That particular map is disenfranchising and diluting the voters of my community,” he said. “It splits up a voting block.”
Dixie argued the group of voters will be moved into another district to vote with people who share little in common. He said he won’t run against Rep. Mitchell this year, but will move in order to seek re-election.
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