Democrats question transparency of Hamilton County Commission redistricting process

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / District 28 Democrat candidate Yusuf Hakeem speaks during a meet and greet hosted by the League of Women Voters in the Chattanooga Rooms at the University Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, and some fellow Black Democrats are calling for more transparency from the Republican-led Hamilton County Commission as officials begin work on the once-a-decade redrawing of political boundaries for commission and school board districts to reflect population changes.

"I wouldn't want us to take what happened at the county [Wednesday] as what's happening behind the scenes. They already know what they're going to do and how they're going to do it," Hakeem cautioned activists last week during a virtual meeting that surveyed the redistricting landscape from local offices on up to the state legislature and Congress.

He warned that "if you're not going to be fair and open you can look forward to a legal process."

Political boundaries for congressional, state legislative and local elected government districts are redrawn every 10 years based on the latest U.S. Census figures to reflect population changes and provide roughly equal representation.

Democrats are at a distinct disadvantage not only when it comes to redistricting in Hamilton County but on congressional and legislative redistricting fronts. The party faces GOP supermajorities so large in the state House and Senate that Republicans can conduct business without a single Democrat present. During 2012 redistricting, Republicans didn't have to do a great deal because the 2010 elections did most of it.

Hakeem's comments came a day after the nine-member county commission held its first public discussions of the redistricting process. Republicans now control six of the nine seats. Amid population gains, there is discussion of increasing the number of districts to 13 or even 15. A tentative map showing creation of a 10th district also ws shown to commissioners.

County Commission Chair Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, pushed back on assertions the commission isn't being transparent.

"We had our first workshop Wednesday and we did it in our open chambers with the public involved and invited," Smedley said in an interview Friday. "So I don't know why [Hakeem] is pushing. He doesn't have to push, it's already happening."

"We hear these same groups, and I take it that they must be a little liberal biased or so," she said. "But we keep hearing from these same groups and they're like 'We want this process to be transparent and open.' We can't be more open and transparent than we are being. We are holding every workshop in our commission chambers, just like we do our public meetings with the public invited and open. We are livestreaming for those who can't be there, plus it's posted on Youtube. So, no one's left out."

Hakeem, along with Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, also a Nashville Democrat, held a Zoom meeting Thursday with Democrats in Hamilton County where they discussed redistricting at the local, state and federal levels.

Among those participating was Dr. Everlena Holmes, founder of the Hamilton County Voter Coalition. She noted that at the Wednesday commission meeting the map with a 10th district was presented by county government's GIS division.

"It was obvious to me the chair communicated with GIS. And one map was shown. Why was that one map shown?" Holmes asked. "The other commissioners may have already known about what was going on. But some of them did not, I am sure."

The practical effect, Holmes added, was "we are sitting there not able to see what's before us and not be able to really understand the process. How do we know it's there? How do we know what's going on if you're not educated? How do you educate the public?"

Holmes said she has asked officials at this coming Wednesday's meeting to provide copies to the public so they can follow in real time what is being presented to commissioners.

"We learned [Wednesday] it was anything but a process when we went to the Hamilton County Commission. They basically were making the rules up on the fly," Eric Atkins, a member of Community Control Now, told fellow Democrats on the virtual meeting.

Smedley said the public will see the maps at "the same time we see them. They're going to be rolled out the same time they are to us.

"There were two maps. I asked Jason [Shaneyfelt] in GIS - because we had to get the conversation started somewhere - and it was just a conversation starter. He showed us what it could potentially look like if we keep nine districts."

That would split Ooltewah-centered District 9 "almost in half," she said, shifting the district across the Tennessee River into the existing District 1 in Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek. The second scenario was adding another district.

"I hope that we can agree, but I mean we had to start somewhere and that's what we have done," Smedley said. "This is so early in the process. And like I told you, I can't think of a way we can be more transparent than what we're being. "

Smedley also noted there is a time factor.

"We are on a strict timeline. And we do need to have a resolution passed and something agreed upon by Dec. 1 so the election commission can do what they need to do in order for the Dec. 20 deadline for candidates who want to run next year to qualify and pick up papers," she said.

According to the 2020 census, Hamilton County's population grew by 366,207 people, up about 30,000, or 8.8%, from the 2010 census. Much of the growth was in the eastern part of Hamilton County, including the Collegedale and Ooltewah areas. That disproportionately impacts District 7, represented by Smedley, as well as Districts 8 and 9.

Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey, a Black Democrat representing District 4, said in an interview Saturday that he told commission colleagues some weeks back that "there's no such thing as a Republican school or a Democratic school. We need to leave that partisanship in Washington."

"The reality is we all have too many people we represent," said Mackey, who noted commissioners now represent some 40,000 people each. He said he is willing to consider as many as six new districts. Mackey also noted his district is "very gerrymandered," stretching from the Highway 58 area into East Chattanooga and Orchard Knob.

"Those people don't have a lot in common with Highway 58," he added.

He said as the process unfolds, he will be "pushing hard to represent the voice of the people. And the best way to do that would be to increase the number of county commissioners."

"I don't want Hamilton County government to be sued," Mackey said before adding, "There is a principle there, equity before the law. And that hasn't been adhered to in Hamilton County."

He cited schools as an example.

At the state level, majority Republicans have supermajorities in both the House and Senate. Thus, they will be firmly in charge of drawing district lines for the nine congressional seats, 99-member House and 33-member Senate districts. State House Republicans have 73 members to Democrats' 26. Republicans also have 27 members in the Senate compared to Democrats' six seats located in Nashville and Memphis.

Some state and local Democrats point back to Republicans' 2012 redistricting plan, which put two Black Democrats in Hamilton County - then-Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga - into the same House District 28 seat. Both lawmakers told the Times Free Press at the time that the GOP plan best served the interests of Chattanooga's Black voters. That was because Brown's majority-Black seat needed additional Black voters to ensure compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. Favors, who represented House District 29 at the time, won the District 29 primary. After Favors decided not to run again in 2018, Hakeem ran and replaced her.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.