U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper waiting to speak to the Tennessee General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting in October 2021. Photo: John Partipilo)
Despite the potential for a lawsuit, the Republican-controlled House passed congressional, state Senate and House redistricting plans Monday as Democrats complained about gerrymandering and splitting Black votes.
The House voted 70-26 to pass a congressional plan that splits Davidson County into three districts, then by similar margins adopted a Senate plan and a House plan that pits Democratic voters against each other in Knox and Shelby counties.
Notably, the House redrew the House redistricting plan to keep incumbents apart in three Davidson County districts, except for one in which a member is set to retire. But Democrats felt Republicans were bluffing to begin with by putting them in the same districts.
The House plan also puts Republican incumbents against each other in three districts, but members are declining to seek re-election in two of those cases, leaving only one contested race between Republicans.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie said afterward, “most definitely” a legal challenge will be made.
On the federal level, the congressional maps “truly diminish” the minority vote in Middle Tennessee by splitting north and east Nashville three ways, Dixie said.
“I think we have a good chance with the federal court looking at this and making some changes,” he said.
Redistricting is done every decade to reapportion state and federal districts using census figures to equalize the vote and ensure “one person one vote” guidelines are followed.
Map drawers, mainly the House Republican Caucus leadership, argued that the plans are constitutional and meet all regulations required by law.
However, Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway contended that a large number of districts in the House plan appear to have an “overwhelmingly” number of white voters with a small minority of Black voters in districts likely to vote Republican.
“Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s tantamount to racial gerrymandering,” Hardaway said.
State Rep. London Lamar challenged the state House district map’s configuration because it eliminates District 90 held by Rep. Torrey Harris of Memphis and moves his residence into District 91, which she holds.
“Can you tell me the logic?” Lamar asked.
House Speaker Pro Tem Pat Marsh responded, saying, “We’ve always gone by seniority in Shelby County.” He noted that one of the redistricting committee’s members spoke with Shelby County’s legislative leadership, which recommended accepting the plan pairing Lamar and Harris in one district, possibly pitting them against each other in the 2022 election.
Lamar further challenged the move, arguing it combines two of the youngest representatives in the House, “diluting” two successful members and hindering future leadership.
But no other members supported her assertion, and the full House adopted the plan with a 70-27 vote.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper said afterward Shelby County’s legislative leaders didn’t put Lamar and Harris together but acknowledged that they accepted the practice of seniority.
Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro was the only Republican to vote against the plan. According to reports, Byrd does not plan to run for re-election this year.
Congressional plan passes with ease
The House adopted Senate Bill 781, a congressional plan that maintains the 9th District, largely in Shelby County, as a minority majority district, but splits Davidson three ways.
The move is largely seen as a way to dilute the 5th District seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper and give a Republican a better chance to win the seat.
Under the plan that passed, the new 5th District would take in southern Davidson County and stretch to Wilson, Williamson, Maury, Marshall and Lewis counties.
Republicans have denied they are trying to gain an 8-1 advantage in Tennessee’s congressional delegation by picking up one more seat.
Marsh, R-Shelbyville, denied any “political considerations” made in splitting Davidson County.
“In the last 10 years, Davidson County has had one congressman in Washington, D.C. Under this plan, they will have three. That’s three times as much representation,” Marsh said.
Rep. Bo Mitchell cast doubt on that explanation, pointing out Davidson County has been kept whole since the era of Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s.
Mitchell, a Davidson County Democrat, pointed out, however, that rural counties could be “forgotten” in two to three election cycles if Davidson County residents win in the new 5th, 6th and 7th districts.
“You may regret it in the future,” Mitchell said.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, argued that rural counties could be hurt by the plan because they have no common interests with Davidson County. The 7th District would put downtown Nashville in the same district with counties such as Decatur and Perry counties in rural Tennessee.
“This isn’t just about Nashville. This is about respecting Perry County,” Clemmons said.
The plan also pushes District 9 into rural western Tipton County. The initial plan put all of Tipton County in the 9th District, but that was highly criticized, and changes were made.
Hardaway contended that putting rural Tipton with urban Shelby would dilute Black votes. Neither county has similar voting patterns.
The change amounts to a “dilution of the Black vote,” Hardaway said.
Odessa Kelly, a candidate for the 5th Congressional District, said afterward she no longer has to “imagine” how it felt to live in a Jim Crow society as her parents and grandparents did, living in segregation.
“It’s back,” she said.
But in contrast, Kelly said, “it just lit a fire. My fire’s been lit, but under hundreds of thousands of people who think it’s embarrassing for us to just trample over democracy, like this. … I think people will stand up.”
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