Tennessee legislative and congressional redistricting plans recently approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature will do exactly what they are intended to do -- enhance GOP control of the state House and Senate and solidify Republican domination of the state's congressional delegation. Predictably, there are howls about the unfairness of it all from Democrats, but that was expected. The party in power always gets its way in these matters, and the party out of power always complains.
Redistricting, mandated every decade to balance legislative and congressional districts, was a heady experience for state Republicans. They've rarely had the opportunity to control redistricting. They were able to do so this year because the GOP holds control in both the state Senate and House and has a governor in control of government. The GOP wasn't about to waste an opportunity to promote its interests. The party took care of its own.
As a result, Republicans are virtually certain to see their current majorities increase in the state legislature in the coming decade. In addition, the state's congressional delegation, already firmly Republican, is likely to remain that way as a result of redistricting. Republican strategists shifted a little here, moved a little there and produced district lines that diminish the chance of Democratic victories even as they enhance the likelihood of GOP triumphs across the state.
In many places, including Chattanooga and the surrounding area, redrawn district lines will force some long-time colleagues to compete for the same seat. In others, shifts of precincts change the political make-up of a district. In most of those instances, the changes benefit Republicans at the expense of Democrats.
In Southeast Tennessee, for example, the redrawing of boundaries could force two longtime House members, JoAnne Favors and Tommie Brown, both black, to seek the same seat. Many of the black voters in Favor's 29th District were moved to Brown's 28th District. Republicans in charge of redistricting say it was necessary to keep the 28th majority black, a requirement under the federal Voting Rights Act. Despite some initial concern, Brown and Favors now agree the move was necessary. The change, though, is likely to change the makeup of the Hamilton County delegation.
Another boundary shift is likely to open up competition in the state's 10th Senate District, a seat currently held by Democrat Andy Berke. The move of a few precincts in the 10th and 11th districts creates a reconstituted district that appears to lean more Republican more than it did previously. That could change the candidate field.
Indeed, Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, is thinking about running against Berke in the coming election. Berke, for his part, will have to decide if he will seek re-election in a changed district, or pursue another goal. The latter is a possibility. He's considering a campaign to retain his Senate seat as well as a possible run for Chattanooga mayor. He's made no public decision about which path he will follow.
The redrawn political map also impacts two other area legislators -- Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap. Harmon's once-Democratic district is gone. If he wants to remain in the legislature, he'll have to run against Cobb in the new District 31, a House district that should be more favorable to Republicans than Democrats. Harmon might not make that race, choosing instead to seek a vacated state Senate seat in a district more friendly to Democrats. Stay tuned for Harmon's decision.
New district lines also will affect voters in Marion and Grundy counties. The new House map splits the county between District 39, which also will include all of Moore County and part of Franklin County, and District 92, which also will include all of Marshall County and parts of Franklin and Lincoln counties. Grundy County moves, too. It is now in the 43rd District. And so it goes all across Tennessee.
Redistricting will force several incumbents to run against current colleagues, often from the same party, to retain a seat. In other locales, mandated boundary shifts will create a district that leans more heavily toward one party than in did in the past. In most instances, Republicans stand to gain the most. Given the redrawn political maps and all the buzz that has surrounded their creation, a simple question arises. Is the redistricting process fair? Probably not.
In a more equitable world, legislators would allow or help create a well-designed computer program that would employ Census and other demographic data to produce equitable and compact district lines. That, of course, would eliminate the role of partisan politics in redistricting, and the odd, barely contiguous districts.
The political world, though, is rarely equitable and it is almost always partisan. Politicians, it is safe to say, never will surrender an opportunity to tinker with political boundaries when the possibility of improving their own or their party's fortunes is the likely result.
When it comes to redistricting, traditional political practices continue to hold sway. Everyone on both sides of the political aisle knew Republicans would ram through self-serving redistricting plans. Given the same opportunity, Democrats would have done the same -- just as they did in past decades when they had legislative majorities that allowed them to control the redistricting process.
If Tennessee Democrats want a real role in redistricting, they will have to win enough seats in the House and Senate in the future to control the redistricting process. There's time to do so. The next opportunity to redraw the maps is a decade away.