NASHVILLE — Republican-drawn redistricting plans for legislative and congressional districts are headed to the House and Senate floors for final action later this week after GOP-controlled committees approved them Tuesday on largely partisan votes.
The bills, which make major changes in Southeast Tennessee’s state House and Senate districts as well as congressional districts are scheduled to come to the House floor on Thursday.
Senators are scheduled to vote on them Friday. Republican leaders in both chambers expect they will pass.
The General Assembly kicked off the second session of the 107th General Assembly on Tuesday.
House Republicans quashed Democrats’ efforts to rewrite the GOP House map. They also lodged separate amendments dealing with specific situations, which were defeated.
They withdrew an amendment changing GOP plans to merge parts of the 29th Legislative District, held by Chattanooga Democrat JoAnne Favors, with the 28th Legislative District represented by Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga.
Both lawmakers are black. Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has said the move is necessary to protect the black-majority status of Brown’s district under federal Voting Rights Act requirements. Favors’ district is not a majority black district.
Brown said she accepted Republicans’ redistricting proposal after holding a meeting Saturday with constituents who told her they wanted the largest percentage of black voters possible to maintain the district’s representation by a black legislator.
Under Republican plans, the redrawn 28th District’s percentage of black residents 18 and older is 60.84 percent.
The panel also approved a GOP congressional plan that splits Republican Bradley County between the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts. It currently is entirely in Hamilton County. The Bradley County Commission and county Republican Party have gone on record opposing the split.
Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, joined with Democrats in opposing the split.
Meanwhile, Democrats on Tuesday night questioned whether the GOP plan to push the Hamilton County portion of Senate District 10, held by Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, into part of Bradley County violates the Tennessee Constitution.
“It would seem that Article II, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution would prohibit this division of Bradley County,” Sen. Joe Barnes, D-Clarksville, told Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, during the Judiciary Committee meeting.
“It states that in a district composed of two or more counties, each county shall adjoin at least one other county in such a district and no county shall be divided in forming such a district,” Barnes said as he read the provision. “That seems to be exactly what’s being done with the division of Bradley County.”
Barnes said while he understands there are “competing interests” between the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, based on a prior court case, “it would seem that’s something that could potentially cause a [court] challenge.”
Watson, who headed a GOP task force on Senate redistricting in East Tennessee, said that while he’s no attorney, he has learned in the Legislature “you can challenge anything if you’re willing to pay the price for the suit.”
He said the decision was based on the cooperation and the relationship that has existed between Hamilton and Bradley counties as well as the need for Berke’s district to pick up population because it was short.
Barnes responded that “I don’t mean frivolous. It seems that provision of the Constitution is plain. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Republicans said there are U.S. constitutional provisions and federal court rulings to consider. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said “reasonable minds can differ” and so do attorneys “about how much balancing you engage in between the federal and the state considerations.”
In the end, Republicans approved the map. Sen. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland, voted for the plan although he said he was reluctant to do so.
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, has said he is seriously looking at running in the redrawn district. Berke has said he thinks he can still win, but he is also weighing running for Chattanooga mayor.
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, ...