County Commission at Cross Purposes on Redistricting

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Bailey: Politics requires some giving and taking.
  • Bailey: "Politics requires some giving and taking."
There was a time, a week or two back, when it appeared that the Shelby County Commission would have little difficulty in arriving at a consensus on how to redistrict the legislative body’s 13 allotted seats in response to the 2010 census.

The current Commission map, drawn according to the census of 2000, consists of four three-member districts and one single-member district.

More or less in keeping with the Commission’s known preferences, the joint city/county Office of Planning and Development researched the demographics and offered a choice of two possibilities — what was called Scenario One, featuring six dual-member districts and one single-member district and Scenario Two, which divided the county into 13 single-member districts.

Both plans, in deference to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the current demographics of Shelby County, respected African-American dominance in the City of Memphis per se and gave blacks a fair chance at a numerical edge on the Commission as a whole. Both plans also acknowledged the fact that the county’s population had expanded outward and that, as a result, the areas outside the City of Memphis should be guaranteed at least four seats.

(At present, only three suburban seats — in District 4 — are expressly guaranteed, although District 1, which overlaps between city and county, allows for the possibility of more.)

On the first reading, there were ten votes for Scenario One, which would go through several permutations and eventually became known as 1-F. In the beginning, only Steve Mulroy, the Democrat currently serving in the only extant single-member area, District 5, insisted on single-member districts.

Mulroy offered two basic arguments — that there was a developing consensus in favor of an ultimate 13-member school board to govern the merged city/county school district now under formation and that a 13-member single-district commission would be able to dovetail precisely with such a board; and that single-member districts allowed for more identifiable and direct representation of constituent populations.

By virtue of the forbidding distances involved, triple-member districts and even dual-member districts are disproportionately difficult for first-time candidates to crack, and thus a multi-district format is something of an “incumbent-protection” plan, Mulroy maintained.

Not so, argued Heidi Shafer, an incumbent Republican in District 1, whose three current commissioners represent both city and county areas. She and others said that multiple representation benefited constituents, giving them alternatives for access.

Beyond such abstract arguments were several other concerns. There was the general question of finding the proper balance of power between blacks and whites and Republicans and Democrats. Commissioner Mike Ritz, a Republican from District 1, insisted on drawing definite lines between the City of Memphis and outer-county areas, and his preferences were built into 1-F, the ultimate permutation of Scenario One.

And some of the political facts of life were shaded with personal realities.

Memphis resident Shafer, unlike the term-limited Ritz, , will have to run for reelection in 2014 under the new guidelines, and her preference, unlike his, was for mixing city and county in as many districts as possible, creating a more fluid partisan mix.

By the time the commission met last Monday for a second reading of what was now 1-F, the plan bearing Ritz’s imprimatur, Shafer had her own plan to present — 3-B, which reverted to 4 large three-member districts, plus one swing district, a plan like the current one, merely updated according to the new census numbers.

And Mulroy (who had briefly floated a compromise plan with five dual-member districts and three single-member districts) would stand behind what was now 2-B, the latest permutation of a single-member district plan.

The commissioners could not agree, making it obvious that the original apparent consensus behind Scenario One had more to do with getting the three mandatory readings started than anything else.

Mindful that if the commission could not approve a plan by December 31, the issue would go to Chancery Court for possible judicial resolution, the commission agreed to meet last Friday to try to advance an agreement.

No dice. The impasse held. The Commission recessed until Wednesday of this week, when it will make another try to break the deadlock. With Ritz and District 4 Republican Terry Roland of Millington now making statements indicating they could accept some version of a single-member plan, there seemed to be something of a movement in that direction. But there were — and are — significant differences of opinion as to how such districts should be drawn, as well as other variables.

And underlying everything was the unyielding fact that, on third and final reading, a plan will need a two-thirds majority — 9 of this discordant Commission’s 13 votes — to be adopted.

Could Shafer and Ritz compromise on the issue of separating city and county districts (as Ritz wanted) or of combining them (as Shafer preferred)? Democrats like Melvin Burgess and James Harvey and Commission chairman Sidney Chism were presumably friendly to a single-district plan, but could the right version of one be found that would suit venerable Democrat Walter Bailey, who seems to have patiently brokered the variations of Scenario One, with input from Roland and Ritz? "Politics requires some giving and taking," Bailey reminded his colleagues on Friday.

What about such hard-to-pigeonhole Democratic members as Henri Brooks and Justin Ford? And was there any chance at all of enticing diehard opponents like District 4 Republicans Wyatt Bunker and Chris Thomas?

“I personally don’t think any of the three plans we looked at Friday will make it through,” said new interim Commission member Brent Taylor, who is chair of the General Government committee handling the issue and has so far remained uncommitted to any variant. Taylor says he wants to maintain his honest-broker status as long as possible but will tip his hand before time runs out.

And that is scheduled to happen at the stroke of midnight on December 31.

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