Math Problem

Designing the Memphis City Council in black and white.

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Redistricting, now in season, is all about racial politics. In one of the great ironies of our time, political and judicial decisions made in the last 20 years aimed at helping black politicians have instead helped white politicians. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Memphis City Council.

Memphis has a population of 646,889. There are 13 council members. Seven of them come from district seats, and six of them come from "super districts" which are combinations of three or more smaller districts. Over a decade, some districts gain population while others lose it. In the proposed redistricting, which the council will take up on July 19th, each regular district has about 92,000 people, plus or minus 5 percent. Each super district has about 323,000 people.

There are 409,818 blacks, 190,141 whites, 42,020 Hispanics, 10,193 Asians, and 26,178 "other" in Memphis. Since 2000, the population of Memphis remained fairly steady but the white population decreased from 34 percent to 29 percent and the black population increased from 61 percent to 63 percent.

The present council has 12 members because the 13th member, Barbara Swearengen Ware, resigned. Six members are black and six are white. In other words, whites are overrepresented.

City Council attorney Allan Wade was in charge of redistricting. Wade got raw data from the Office of Planning and Development and input from all seven district council members and most of the super-district members.

"Politics was not involved at all," said Wade, although that could change next week. Wade was guided by the principle of one man, one vote to make districts roughly the same size and by the dictates of the 1995 Voting Rights Decree to remedy past discrimination by creating districts with "substantial black majorities." Four of the seven districts and one super district are at least 75 percent black.

The district that gained the most population between 2000 and 2010 was District 2, represented by Bill Boyd. It includes most of East Memphis and Cordova and is 52 percent white and 39 percent black in the proposal. The other district that gained population was District 1, represented by Bill Morrison. It includes Raleigh, Frayser, and other areas and is 36 percent white and 54 percent black in the proposal.

The districts that lost the most people were District 6, represented by Ed Ford, and District 4, represented by Wanda Halbert. In the proposed redistricting, District 6 is 89 percent black and District 4 is 78 percent black.

The whitest district is District 5, represented by Jim Strickland. It includes a lot of Midtown and is 67 percent white in the proposal. The blackest district is District 6 in South Memphis and downtown.

The super districts were created by the council in 1995 and racially rigged due to lawsuits that said blacks could not be elected at large. Myron Lowery, a council member since 1991, opposed that because he thought demographic changes meant blacks could win at-large races, as he himself had done.

"But people didn't believe that," he said.

Super District 8, represented by Joe Brown, Janis Fullilove, and Lowery, is 85 percent black in the proposal. Super District 9, represented by Reid Hedgepeth, Shea Flinn, and Kemp Conrad, is 48 percent white and 41 percent black.

There is no runoff in super district races, but there is a runoff in district races between the top two candidates if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. That's how Morrison won his seat in 2007. It is highly unlikely that a white candidate could win in Super District 8, but a well-financed black candidate could win in Super District 9.

The best way to get on the council is to run for an open seat. Nine of the current council members were elected for their first terms in 2007. So far, nobody on the council except for Ware has said they do not plan to seek reelection.

District campaigns are different from super-district campaigns. "I don't think anyone has knocked on more doors than me," said Strickland. "In a district race I can outwork everyone."

Advertising and $1,000 contributions, the maximum allowed, are mandatory in Super District 9. Campaign financial disclosures filed this week show that Flinn, Hedgepeth, and Conrad have the biggest war chests on the council.

The filing deadline is July 21st. The election is October 6th.

Prediction: The next council will be the same as the current council, with a new black member replacing Ware and every big vote a potential cliffhanger.

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