published Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Redistricting proposal for Senate shifts Andy Berke's territory

NASHVILLE — Senate majority Republicans' redistricting plan seeks to draw bull's-eyes on top Democrats, including Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.

But the plan also appears to put the kibosh on the career of one of Republicans' own members in Middle Tennessee.

The plan, released Wednesday, lops off Democratic-leaning Marion County from Berke's 10th Senate District and pushes the district eastward through Republican areas including East Ridge and Apison into a major chunk of Republican-rich Bradley County.

Rep. Vince Dean, of East Ridge, said he is "very interested" in running in the reconfigured district.

"I'll spend the next week or so until it's finalized and voted on, praying about it, consulting with family and advisers," said Dean, a Republican. "And I'll also be studying the map."

Among other things, Dean is interested in seeing whether any other Republican House members live in the district.

In a statement, Berke said, "I continue to support nonpartisan, independent redistricting to avoid allowing politics to influence such an important task."

He noted the Tennessee Constitution "states that we should avoid splitting counties because it diminishes their voice in the state legislature. Splitting Bradley County would both risk the legality of this proposal and could hurt the voice of one of our East Tennessee counties."

But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican Senate speaker, said GOP lawmakers "were committed to drawing a fair and legal state Senate map and that is exactly what we have done."

The map "emphasizes regional integrity and adheres to state and federal laws as well as court precedent," Ramsey said. "I look forward to concluding the redistricting process swiftly and efficiently as soon as we go into session next week."

The plan is expected to be acted on in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and could become law by the end of next week.

It reflects the first GOP-crafted redistricting plan in Tennessee history. State Senate, state House and congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect shifting population according to the latest U.S. census.

Berke is already said to be exploring running for Chattanooga mayor and Republicans believe the plan will give him a firm nudge, although Berke has said he thinks he can win the redrawn district.

Republicans familiar with the plan estimate that about 43,000 Bradley residents, now represented by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, will now be in the 10th District, with roughly 150,000 Hamilton County residents.

A Republican familiar with the plan said it should give a Republican a base of GOP-leaning voters at above 55 percent.

The plan also takes aim at Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis. It tosses part of Kyle's 28th Senate District into Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey's Germantown-based District 31.

Kyle is up for re-election this year. Kelsey's seat isn't up for two more years, but because Republicans have renumbered his district -- with his agreement -- to District 28, he will run in 2012.

More than 150,000 of the redrawn district's estimated 190,000 residents will come from Kelsey's district, Republicans say.

That would leave Kyle with a difficult choice.

Several other Democrats face more competitive districts under the GOP plan as well. Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, will see his district with a slight Republican edge, as will Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010, Republicans say.

But Republicans are also eating one of their own. Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, will see his home county of Robertson become part of Senate District 25, which is held by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson.

Roberts won a special election in March to fill out the remainder of a term of a Republican lawmaker who was elected to Congress in 2010. His term is up in November. But Summerville, who was elected in 2010, is not up for re-election until 2014.

Roberts isn't the only unhappy Republican.

Bradley County Republicans, as well as Democrats, are fiercely opposed to splitting their county.

The Bradley County Republican Executive Committee last week passed a resolution which says, "any attempt to split Bradley County into two separate state senatorial districts would have a detrimental effect on one of Tennessee's largest centers of economic and cultural growth."

It also would "disrupt the cohesive, clear, and unified voice of all Bradley County citizens," the resolution says.

Bradley County Democratic Party Chairman Benjamin Riggs said, "We're totally against it. ... They are trying to get Andy Berke out, and Bradley County is so heavily Republican that they know they could have the votes against him. It's just dirty politics."

Bell said he isn't happy either.

"I don't like it. ... Ever since I first heard this concept was possible six weeks ago, I've expressed my displeasure to the Senate leadership and working group. But I understand the larger picture is we got to draw a fair and legal map that meets the requirements ... one-man, one-vote, and both the 9th [Bell's district] and 10th are about 30,000 short when you look at the total."

He said he still hasn't given up trying to persuade fellow Republicans against splitting Bradley. But Bell said local Republicans said they understood it wasn't his fault.

Bell will be left with Cleveland and two precincts outside the city as well as in his home county, McMinn and Polk counties. Loudon County will be added.

Republicans have a 20-13 edge over Democrats in the Senate. The new plan could increase that to 22 to 25 over the next ten years.

The new Senate plan adds a black majority district in Shelby County, which would raise the number of black senators from three to four.

Staff writer Kate Harrison contributed to this report.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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