Redistricting split of Bradley County likely, Eric Watson says

Redistricting split of Bradley County likely, Eric Watson says

January 12th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Bradley County Republican lawmakers and Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, made common cause Wednesday in last-ditch efforts to alter GOP plans that will split Bradley in state Senate redistricting.

With a House vote scheduled this morning and Senate vote Friday, Republicans on Wednesday night appeared largely resigned to changes.

"I don't think it's looking good at all," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said Wednesday night. "I think the split's going to happen without a doubt."

Proposed changes would take 38,466 Bradley Countians, many of them adult GOP voters, from the 9th Senatorial District represented by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and thrust them into the 10th Senatorial District held by Berke.

The remaining 60,497 people would remain in Bell's district. Bell and House Assistant Republican Leader Kevin Brooks of Cleveland oppose the change.

Other proposed surgery by the Republican-controlled Senate would lop off all of the 10th's Democratic-leaning voters in Marion County. It also replaces 24 of Berke's Hamilton County precincts with 19 mostly GOP-leaning precincts in places such as East Ridge, East Brainerd, Ooltewah and Apison.

Those precincts are in Republican Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson's 11th Senatorial District. Watson supports the move and was in charge of the Senate's East Tennessee redistricting map.

Changes would turn Berke's district from one favoring a Democrat to one more favorable to a Republican challenger. State Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, is strongly considering running in the reconfigured district.

Berke said Wednesday night that "we're continuing to try to ensure that Bradley County stays together.

"There are Hamilton County precincts that probably belong in the 10th that are currently in the 11th" under Senate GOP plans," he said.

Watson is taking a number of precincts from Berke with large concentrations of usually Democratic-leaning black voters. The list includes East Chattanooga, Dalewood and Glenwood.

Berke currently represents much of Chattanooga.

"The city and a lot of urban voters share the same kinds of concerns," he said. "It makes sense for them to be joined together so they can speak in a unified voice."

He said the GOP proposal "would harm their ability to join together and have sway with their elected representative."

Berke also questions whether Article II, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution allows splitting two adjoining counties to create a district.

"It clearly says that you can't. ... This obviously was an important issue for the people who wrote the Tennessee Constitution, and I certainly want to ensure we end up with a constitutional plan," Berke said.

In committee on Tuesday, Watson defended the proposed map.

The 10th District was short some 14,000 people while his district was short 3,000. He pointed out lawmakers can't go south because Chattanooga sits on the state line with Georgia. That left Republicans faced with moving the district east and north or west and north.

Other factors are "regional integrity" and "communities of interest," Watson said. He said Hamilton and Bradley counties have far more in common, given their cooperation on economic development, than Marion or northwestern counties.