GOP plan puts Tommie Brown, JoAnne Favors in same district

GOP plan puts Tommie Brown, JoAnne Favors in same district

September 18th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Tennessee state representative Tommie Brown

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

JoAnne Favors stands in the Times Free Press photo studio during a portrait session. Photo taken Jan. 16, 2009.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

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For more information about current House Districts 28 and 29, go to www.capitol.tn.gov/house/committees/redistricting.html

NASHVILLE -- The number of black Hamilton County Democrats in the state House will drop from two to one during 2012 redistricting by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, GOP leaders have confirmed to the Times Free Press.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said plans call for combining the majority-black 28th Legislative District held by Rep. Tommie Brown with a large portion of the 29th Legislative District represented by Rep. JoAnne Favors. Both are black Democrats.

"I don't think the numbers would allow us to make two Democratic districts," McCormick said. "We've got to expand Tommie Brown's district, and we cannot expand it into the suburbs because it would become less of a [black] majority."

Brown's district is currently 50.3 percent black while Favors' district is 39.7 percent, according to information provided by the Public Mapping Project, a nonpartisan website aimed at bringing more transparency to redistricting.

Because Hamilton County's population failed to keep up with growth elsewhere in the state, the number of House districts is going from 51/2 to five.

McCormick said the 28th District's status as a majority-black district must be maintained under federal Voting Rights Act guidelines aimed at preserving minority voting strength.

Upset Democrats, however, are threatening to march into court, saying if the plan holds it would force Brown and Favors to run against each other if they both seek re-election.

"If they put Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors together, we're going to sue," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner warned. "They're trying to disenfranchise minorities down there."

Brown and Favors say they understand that Republicans, who now enjoy a 64-24-1 majority in the lower chamber, plan to combine the districts.

"This is pretty definite," Favors said of GOP plans. "I was told it was going to be four Republican seats and one Democratic seat."

Brown agreed, calling Republicans' plans "an open secret."

"That's what we understand -- the 28th and 29th will be merged," Brown said. "They not only take out a Democratic seat. It's a double blow. You also eliminate one African-American from the Legislature."

Redistricting is done at all levels of government after every 10-year census. New district lines are drawn to reflect population changes. It's usually a highly partisan affair, with the majority party using what former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith was fond of calling the "power of the pen."

This will be the first time in history that the pen has been in Republican hands for the redrawing of state and federal House and Senate districts. House Republicans are trying to protect their new-found majority and make gains through redistricting.

Meanwhile, Turner's accusations drew a heated protest from McCormick.

"This idea that we're looking to disenfranchise minorities is pulling the race card out of the bottom of the deck," he said. "It's unfair and it's untrue. Now having said that, if Mike Turner would like Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors to be in different districts, I will be glad to work on that. I can put one of them in my district and they can run against me."

He noted his district will remain a GOP-leaning area.

Speaking earlier, Favors said she believes Republicans will merge the districts.

"Now the thing you have to look at from a legal standpoint is you don't want to concentrate minorities in a district," she said. "That too has been challenged in court and that's referred to as packing."

Brown and Favors indicated that if their districts are merged, the black community will likely let them know who should run.

"I'm saying it will cause concern," said Brown, who was first elected in 1992. "The community itself will probably pressure one person or the other out of the race."

Favors, first elected in 2004, said, "I really don't know" about a race with Brown.

"I would have to feel the pulse of the community," she said. "I lived in the [28th District] all my life until these past 10 years. It would be extremely difficult to run. But I would listen to the people."

According to House Republicans, 53,690 people live in the 28th District. The district includes downtown, Alton Park, Eastdale and portions of Red Bank.

That is 10,412 below the statewide ideal district size of 64,201. Currently, blacks comprise 50.3 percent of the population. Hispanics make up 4.6 percent and whites and others the remainder.

The 29th District held by Favors is 58,580 -- 5,522 below the ideal district size. Blacks comprise 39.7 percent while Hispanics are 4.6 percent. The remainder are white and others.

The district includes parts of East Chattanooga, North Chattanooga and Brainerd. It never has had a black majority.

McCormick said the ideal district in Hamilton County will be larger than the state figure -- at 67,307. As a result, Brown's district is short 13,617 and Favors' is 8,737 below what it needs to be.

"Technically we could draw five Republican districts and we would get sued and deserve to get sued," McCormick said.

He said in order to maintain the 28th's viability as a "majority-minority" district, the black population should be in the "high 50s" percentage-wise.

Gerard Stranch, an attorney for the Tennessee Democratic Party, called it "disappointing to see that the Republicans are viewing their redistricting obligations as including the reduction of minority districts."

He said he has "already been contacted about filing suit by various individuals and am awaiting the final plan. If the Republicans truly wish to avoid expensive litigation and injunctions, then they should open the process to the public."

Currently, three districts that fall entirely within Hamilton County are held by Republicans. A fourth seat, which includes part of northern Hamilton County, is now held by Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, who also represents all of Rhea County. The other two seats are held by Brown and Favors.

Cobb's district no longer will include any of Hamilton County. The county portion will be merged with other districts.

As a result, McCormick said, "there will be a new [Hamilton County] district, an open district that will lean Republican."

Attorney John Ryder, who is advising legislative Republicans on redistricting, agreed.

In cases where there is a black majority district, also referred to as a majority-minority district, Ryder said, "then under the Voting Rights Act that has to be preserved. If it's not a majority-minority district it doesn't have to be preserved."