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Battle Lines

Not everybody is keen on the new state redistricting plans.

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The General Assembly convened this week in Nashville, and one of the first orders of business was to consider redistricting plans agreed upon by the current Republican speakers of the state House and state Senate, Beth Harwell and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, respectively, and as advised by Memphis' own John Ryder, an attorney and redistricting maven who happens also to be a Republican national committeeman from Tennessee.

This was the first opportunity ever for Republicans, who now control both chambers of the legislature as well as the governorship, to preside over the redistricting process. It is fair to say that they were disinclined to let the opportunity go by without acting on it.

To be frank, they have gerrymandered the maps of state House and Senate districts, as well as those for congressional districts.

There is nothing new in this. When Democrats controlled the legislature and the process, they gerrymandered as well. Which is to say, the ruling party will always flip a two-headed coin and call it "heads" in determining in whose interests, its own or those of the opposing party, district lines should be drawn.

Given that fact, there are also constitutional restrictions to be abided by — such as the federal courts' insistence, on the basis of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the rights of minorities (African Americans, in Tennessee at large) be not abridged or reduced in the determination of district lines.

And there is the element of simple fairness, which, here and there, in the determination of districts, has been observed, as, here and there, it always has been.

And there is simple politics at work in the new redistricting, as, again, there always has been. Though Tennessee Democrats, who claim they were consulted with minimally or not at all, would suggest some especially notorious instances occurred this time around.

A case in point is the map of proposed state Senate districts for Shelby County, which — because the county's population is lower in relation to the rest of the state than it was 10 years ago, when the previous census was completed — was due to lose one of its six Senate seats.

Given the political realities, this was certain to be at the expense of Democrats (though, ironically, the county's prospective Democratic population may be larger with respect to the prospective Republican population than was formerly the case).

State senator Jim Kyle — who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the chief sacrificial victim of the new Senate redistricting — has been basically drawn out of his chances of reelection. As the accompanying map makes clear, Kyle's district number, 28, has been assigned to a largely suburban district that overlaps significantly with what used to be District 31, the heavily GOP-oriented bailiwick of Republican state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown. (Kyle's residence is included within the merest westernmost sliver of the new 28th; the rest of his former district is now distributed within three adjoining districts.)

Kelsey is at midterm of his elected four-year tenure and ordinarily would not have been scheduled to run for reelection this year. He will do so now — reportedly having volunteered to do so.

One of the oddities of the Senate redistricting is that the district where both Kyle and Kelsey now reside is so consistent with Kelsey's former district that it might just as easily have been designated 31. Had it been done so, with both men residing within it, Kyle, who is at the end of his prior elected term, would be out of luck altogether, unable to run again, while Kelsey would have a bye for two more years.

Meanwhile, state senator Reginald Tate, a Democrat whose district, hugging the county's southern boundary, was formerly designated 33, has seen Kelsey's old number of 31 applied to his territory, with 33 now used on behalf of a new district in — ready? — Middle Tennessee.

Was jiggling the numbers in this way a relative mercy toward Kyle? Possibly. It might also be a disposition created, one key Democrat suggests, as a way of discouraging Democratic challenge, either legislative or judicial, lest something worse be substituted.

There are other possible anomalies in the Senate redistricting. Democrat Beverly Marrero's District 30 has been reconfigured, so that it is very heavily African-American in population. While the district will almost certainly remain Democratic, Marrero herself now becomes vulnerable to challenge from any of several possible African-American contenders.

One of these might well be either Representative Barbara Cooper or Representative G.A. Hardaway, who now find themselves in the same House district, leaving one of them free to look for a race elsewhere. (Democratic state representatives Antonio Parkinson and Jeanne Richardson now also find themselves in a common district, this one also overwhelmingly African-American.)

 

Cohen's complaint: And there is the new configuration of congressional districts in Tennessee, whereby District 7, now represented by Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, has been distanced from eastern Shelby County all the way past adjoining Fayette County to the east.

The slack is largely taken up by extending GOP congressman Stephen Fincher's 8th District down into most of eastern Shelby County, taking portions of Democratic congressman Steve Cohen's District 9 in the process. Cohen's district now would go farther north toward Millington, to keep the same demographic ratios as before.

But there's another hitch, which has Cohen seeing red. As the first Jewish congressman in Tennessee history, he sees himself now redistricted out of contact, as he puts it, "with all four Jewish congregations in Shelby County." Aside from the symbolism involved, Cohen laments the severance of his official contact with Poplar Corridor persons and institutions he has long been used to serving, as state senator and as congressman. And he doubts that Fincher's rural perspective gives the 8th District congressman proper insight and perspective on behalf of the lost constituents.

State senator Mark Norris of Collierville, who as Senate majority leader was involved in the redistricting process, has reportedly agreed to look into the matter.

Ryder was more dismissive, asking rhetorically if Cohen meant that Jews should be represented by Jews in the same way that blacks should be represented by blacks. This was an obvious reference to Cohen's representation of a majority-black district.

And, should the new District 8 lines remain where they are now drawn, several Shelby County Republicans might be inclined to think about taking on Fincher — among them Norris, Kelsey, interim county commissioner Brent Taylor, former commissioner George Flinn, and former U.S. attorney David Kustoff, all of whom besides Kelsey have made prior runs for Congress.

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