In last week's "Politics" column, Jackson Baker took a preliminary look at the General Assembly's handiwork in assigning new district boundaries for state House and state Senate seats and for Tennessee's nine congressional districts.
He touched upon some of the obvious gerrymandering aspects of the new lines, devised this time around by a Republican legislative majority — and not by the state's traditionally Democratic majority.
In the same fashion as was the case of yore with the Democrats, the predominant GOP acted so as to make itself even more predominant. Reputedly, the state Republicans' goal was to ensure itself at least two more state Senate seats (the current ratio is 20 Republicans to 13 Democrats) and as many as six new House seats (where the GOP now has a majority of 65 to 34). Should the numbers show such a result after this year's legislative races, the Republicans will be able to pursue, in effect, one-party government. To all intents and purposes, they are able to do so now. And the difference between that state of affairs and the one characterized by the long-gone time of the solid Democratic South is crucial.
For most of the 20th century, Democrats controlled state government, to be sure, with Republican influence confined mostly to ancestral GOP enclaves, mostly in East Tennessee, that dated from the time of the Civil War. But the ruling Democrats were increasingly divided into factions — urban vs. rural, progressive vs. conservative, Middle Tennessee vs. West Tennessee, and suchlike. Today's Republicans are at this point relatively monolithic in outlook and have not yet begun to differentiate in that manner.
That became all too obvious at the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, when GOP House and Senate members, without exception, voted their approval to the Norris-Todd bill, which supplied the core governing framework for the ongoing merger of city and county schools in Shelby County. This unanimity was forthcoming, despite the fact that the bill's provision for new special school districts for Shelby County in 2013 threatened to upset the continued ban on new districts elsewhere in the state that GOP legislators in numerous other counties were known to favor.
Other points of note: When the GOP framers of the new districts decided to put the Democrats' state Senate leader, Jim Kyle of Memphis, in a district where he was ineligible either to run for reelection or to continue to, that came close to being Soviet-style revisionism. And the slicing off of East Memphis and eastern Shelby County from the 9th District of current congressman Steve Cohen, a Democrat, was a demographic disservice both to Cohen (as arguably to a now jurisdictionally divided city of Memphis) and to current 8th District congressman Stephen Fincher, a Republican from rural Frog Jump who is sure to be at the mercy of opportunistic Shelby Countians in his own party.
Meanwhile, Republican Marsha Blackburn of the 7th District can breathe easier by having her district out of eastern Shelby County, where County Register Tom Leatherwood's primary challenge in 2008 had reportedly given her concern.
Politics ain't beanbag, to be sure, as the hoary saying goes, but it's the name of the game when it comes to reapportionment.