Tennessee Republicans' redistricting plan to reunite Bradley County in 3rd Congressional District

Staff File Photo by Matt Hamilton / Congressman Chuck Fleischmann would have all of Bradley County within his political district under new maps proposed by the state legislature.

NASHVILLE - Bradley County would be united within the same congressional district for the first time in a decade under a political redistricting plan being finalized by Tennessee legislative Republicans.

State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker, confirmed the intent Tuesday as the 112th General Assembly convened for its 2022 session, where state and congressional redistricting are a top focus for the GOP-led legislature.

The entire county for decades was part of the 3rd Congressional District, held then and now by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah. But in 2012 redistricting, Republicans divided Bradley between Fleischmann and U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Sherwood.

DesJarlais represents the state's 4th Congressional District.

"That was a request, that Congressman Fleischmann wanted all of Bradley. So we talked to him and we tried to do what we could," Sexton said in response to a Times Free Press reporter's question as the House adjourned its first day of session.

The splitting of Bradley during 2012 redistricting was an effort by Republicans to put DesJarlais in a district where he was less known and more vulnerable to a GOP primary challenge. It was done to help then-state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville - an ally of the Senate's then-speaker, Ron Ramsey - as Tracy mounted a challenge of DesJarlais.

DesJarlais won the contest, narrowly. The 2012 district stretches west across Monteagle Mountain and eventually into Rutherford County and Murfreesboro. Rutherford has seen massive population growth over the past decade, and the district needs to lose population to come as close as possible to the ideal size of a district as determined in the 2020 U.S. census.

"DesJarlais has all of Rutherford right now," Sexton said Monday in response to questions posed by the Times Free Press. "I mean, as far as Fleischmann, he didn't have all of Bradley. It makes sense for him to have all of it. When the map comes up, it'll be clear."

The 2012 redistricting plan moved Fleischmann further north into several counties. He is expected to lose some of those but retain Anderson County, home to the city of Oak Ridge and federal installations including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex that he has helped as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

McNally said the Senate and House are largely of accord in their maps of the state's nine congressional districts.

"I think we are," he told reporters following Monday's brief floor session. "I think we've looked at theirs and they've looked at ours, and we're pretty much in agreement with how both are proceeding to come together."

He added later, "there could be some small [tweaks] as we go along and have the plans reviewed by legal and everybody, there might be some small adjustments we'd have to make."

The Republican-controlled House is expected to release its congressional map draft Wednesday. Senators are looking at releasing theirs Thursday.

Democrats, meanwhile, are incensed Republicans intend to divide a Democratic stronghold - the Nashville-based 5th Congressional District held by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville - between three congressional districts.

The Tennessee Journal reported Tuesday that the 6th and 7th Congressional districts now held by Republican U.S. Reps. John Rose of Cookeville and Mark Green of Ashland City would include portions of Davidson County (Nashville). Green would keep only a third of Williamson County.

Cooper would retain the remaining portion of Nashville and Cheatham County.

"It's hard for me to comment on the Senate maps because I haven't seen them," said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. "I think the utter lack of transparency in this is gross. You don't have to be a political scientist to look at these maps to realize they don't actually make any sense.

"There's no natural regions or economies or communities that are put together, they're just trying to play politics, and I think they're playing short-term politics in a way that's not actually going to work for them in the long run."

Republicans' redistricting plans spare U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who represents Tennessee's 9th Congressional District. Cohen's district has lost population and needs to grow.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, ruled out running for any of the congressional seats, quashing speculation in some quarters that he might do so.

"I love what I'm doing. I want to be the majority leader of the state Senate," Johnson told the Times Free Press as he prepared to enter an elevator leading to the state Capitol.

Last week, Kent Syler, a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor and former chief of staff to then-U.S. Sen. Bart Gordon, a Murfreesboro Democrat, told the Times Free Press that if Republicans overreach, their efforts to squeeze out another congressional seat by splitting Nashville could eventually leave the GOP vulnerable over the course of a decade amid continued explosive growth in Middle Tennessee.

Sexton was dismissive.

"That's up to elections and how people vote," the speaker said. "I mean 20 years ago, the state was blue, now it's red. It's up to the people to determine who they elect. It's not up to us, so they'll have opportunity to vote for whatever congressmen they want to."

In December, House Republicans released their legislative redistricting plan for all 99 of the chamber's seats. It loops nine Democratic representatives from Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis into four districts. Left untouched was Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Democrat from Chattanooga and the only Democrat in Southeast Tennessee.

Senate Republicans expect to release their plan for the 33-member Senate shortly.

In addition to redistricting, Tennessee lawmakers this year will act on the state's annual spending plan and other issues. Republican Gov. Bill Lee may also present a possible new school funding formula to legislators.

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