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The tables have turned as the GOP redraws Tennessee's legislative districts

Democracy in Pieces

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"Every 10 years, lawmakers must redraw all districts in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress to make sure they're roughly the same population. In a perfect world, the legislature would have a computer develop the district lines and let the chips fall where they may. But that's not the way it works.

"Instead, leaders from the majority party ... work out a plan that meets the legal requirements of redistricting. As well, the plan's authors do everything possible to protect incumbents and the party in power. It's a complicated process affecting every voter in the state. And it generally happens in secret."

So wrote Bill Carey in the Nashville Scene — only the year was 2001, and the majority party in question was the Democrats. Last week, with Republicans controlling the executive and legislative branches of Tennessee government, it was the GOP's historic turn to reapportion the state for the next 10 years. But the setting was the same — Nashville's Capitol Hill — as was the sausage-making meat grinder of democracy that is redistricting.

Whenever lawmakers appeared publicly last week, they crowed over their amazingly transparent redistricting process. "That's bullshit," said one public-interest lobbyist who showed up in a Capitol Hill press corps cubicle to complain and to state the obvious. In redistricting, what's best for constituents is beside the point. That things were no different under Democratic rule shouldn't make anyone feel any better. In a statement, the League of Women Voters agreed.

"The League works to promote transparent and accountable redistricting processes and to end hyper-partisan practices that don't benefit constituents," the league's statement read. "In our view, the Tennessee redistricting process that has been in the news lately certainly lacks transparency and accountability. We do not have a position on where to draw district lines nor do we necessarily believe this process is worse than previous legislative efforts. We do believe, however, that the secret discussions which lead to this 'take it or leave it plan' do not serve the public interest. Tennessee can do better."

Not this year, it couldn't. After a week of heated backroom quarrelling, the reapportionment of state House districts ended with a game of rock-paper-scissors.

Republicans agreed to accommodate Democrats, redrawing district lines to help three incumbents keep their seats. In return, they asked Democrats to go along with speeding the plan through the House. And one more thing: They demanded that either House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh or his top lieutenant, Rep. Mike Turner, vote for the plan.

"I thought it was worth doing that to save a couple of our members," Turner said shortly after the House voted 67-25 for the plan. "We discussed this back and forth, which one of us was going to do it. We did rock-paper-scissors, and I lost."

Turner speculated that House leaders wanted to embarrass one of their adversaries for putting Republicans through so much hassle over redistricting.

"It was a little punitive maybe," he said. "There was some discussion pretty hot and heavy. There were actually some pretty colorful words. One night it really got blown up pretty bad. There were some things said. Maybe they felt like they had to have something back. Maybe they wanted to hit one of us."

The plan, which originally endangered the careers of at least nine Democrats, now gives new life to three of them: Reps. Sherry Jones of Nashville, Eddie Bass of Pulaski, and Harry Tindell of Knoxville. Jones, who had been tossed into Rep. Mike Stewart's East Nashville district, is redrawn into one of her own. Bass is no longer shoved into a Republican incumbent's district, and Tindell's district also is made more to his liking (though he's not intimating he may not run).

Democrats said they will decide later whether to go to court to try to overturn the plan for under-representing blacks. Tennessee's black population grew by 127,000 people between 2000 and 2010. Yet the Republican plan keeps 13 majority-minority districts, the same as before. Democrats contend the plan should have added two more.

Fitzhugh also complained about the secrecy and speed of the process. The plan, hatched behind closed doors, was whisked through the House only nine days after it was made public.

"We understand to the victor goes the spoils," he said. "And we understand this is an inside baseball process that probably people in this building care more about than people across the state do. But the problem that we have with it was that the people across the state didn't have the opportunity to care about it because it was pretty much a closed deal until the very end. It just didn't have the transparency that things in Tennessee state government ought to have. But we did not have the votes and we knew that, so we just made the best of the situation."

The skirmishes over reapportionment were no less bitter in the Senate. Senators voted 20-12 for their new political map, which rescued Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle from being gerrymandered into a state of nothingness.

In their first plan, the Republican majority dumped Kyle into right-winger Brian Kelsey's district. Since Kelsey's term isn't finished until 2014, and Kyle's is up this year, that meant Kyle would go bye-bye at the end of this session. But Republicans shoved him into Democrat Beverly Marrero's district instead, leaving the two Memphis liberals to run against each other this year unless one of them quits. Let the voters decide which one returns. It's all the same to the Republicans.

Friday's debate was almost exclusively about whether the plan is unfair to various incumbent Democrats. Complaining that her district was "chopped up," Marrero said, "I just want to say with great sadness I think it's a very sad day that the people of my district who I've always represented no longer have me as a representative."

Democrats offered an alternative plan, plus various other amendments, but it was all for show. Everyone knew Republicans would ram through their own map, like the Democrats before them.

"There's something about this plan that everyone can dislike a little bit," Senate GOP leader Mark Norris said, "and some people can dislike a lot."

The legislature also adopted new lines for Tennessee's nine congressional districts, deciding against blowing up Nashville in an attempt to throw Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper out of office. There were too many Democrats to go around without endangering one or more of the state's numerous Republican members of Congress.

Lawmakers did find a way to please Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron, though. They put his hometown of Murfreesboro into the district of freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais so Ketron can run against him. Ketron claims to be praying about whether to make this race — which seems odd, since he's a key member of the state Senate's redistricting committee and demanded the 4th District include his house in Murfreesboro so he'd qualify.

That brings the prospect of a GOP primary between an incumbent who watched his stand against the Forest Service's "issue-oriented advocacy among school children" spun in the media as a jihad against Smokey the Bear, and a challenger who introduced legislation to establish a Tennessee monetary system in case of calamity. Prayer seems appropriate.


Slicing Up the State: How redistricting has shaped Tennessee's present conditions, as the GOP redraws its future

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