Tennessee political redistricting having major impact on two state senators' districts

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, talks on a phone with a Tennessee flag cover during a Senate session Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, would no longer represent parts of Bradley County under a Tennessee Senate Republican legislative redistricting map, given preliminary approval this week, which aims to enshrine GOP political power in the Volunteer State over the next 10 years.

The once-a-decade rewrite of the state's 33 state Senate seats, 99 House seats and nine congressional seats also reduces the number of Hamilton County Democratic voters in Gardenhire's District 10 seat even as it pushes him west and north into three new, Republican-majority rural counties: Grundy, Sequatchie and Bledsoe.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, meanwhile, is absorbing a number of Gardenhire's previously held precincts in Hamilton County with a strong Democratic presence. Precincts such as Avondale and Bushtown have been added to Watson's Senate District 11.

"I hate to lose Bradley County, hate to lose it. I had an 85% margin in the county and worked real hard for it and made a lot of good friends, but I'm looking forward to working with the people in Marion County, Sequatchie and Bledsoe," Gardenhire told the Times Free Press after the maps cleared the Senate's Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting.

Bradley County was split in two during 2012 redistricting, divided between Senate District 10 and Senate District 9, held by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who is not seeking re-election.

Republican senators on the panel also approved the House GOP plan for representatives and both chambers' congressional plan on 5-1 party line votes.

"I've got some relatives in each one of those [counties] and some longtime friends from school and just over the years of knowing a lot of people in those areas," Gardenhire said of the new counties he will soon represent. "So I'm looking forward to getting involved in those districts. I'm pretty happy about the new part. I'm unhappy about losing Bradley, but I'm happy about picking up those counties."

In his 2020 re-election bid, Gardenhire defeated Democratic challenger Glenn Scruggs, assistant Chattanooga police chief, 53.2% to 46.8%. Scruggs, however, carried the Hamilton County portion of the district by more than 6,000 votes. Gardenhire's victory was fueled by Bradley County voters.

Most of Bradley County is now being put into a newly drawn Senate District 1 seat, which also includes McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties. But a portion of Bradley is being joined with Polk, Monroe and Blount counties in a new Senate District 2 seat. Republicans' efforts to redraw the lines in the region were aided by the announced retirement of Bell, R-Riceville, in the current Senate District 9.

Efforts to reach Watson on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Both the GOP-controlled House and Senate plan to take final committee action on the state legislative and congressional maps next week.

Democrats are already fuming and threatening to sue over the congressional maps that split the Democratic 5th Congressional District (Metro Nashville and Cheatham County) and move some portions of the district into friendlier Republican territory. Meanwhile, the GOP-held 6th and 7th Congressional districts have been extended into Metro Nashville.

Democrats are also upset about the House Republican redistricting plan that loops nine incumbent Democrats in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis into five districts. Republicans say it was unavoidable. Democrats aren't buying it.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, was the lone vote in the committee against the state House and Senate as well as congressional plans. He singled out both the state House and congressional plans for criticism.

"I think this is a really dangerous step that the majority is taking," Yarbro said. "Look, I'm a grown-up. I know that politics is occasionally hard-edged, and I think people expect frankly that the politicians might put a thumb on the scale on their side. This is not a thumb on the scale, this is a bending over backwards to draw lines that distort the will of the voters, plain and simple."

Yarbro said the Senate district map overall is more carefully drawn, but it has pockets of concern.

"I think it has significant problems in a few different communities," he said. "I think Hamilton is one that I want to look closer at over the weekend. It looks very much to me more similar to the House and congressional maps. That race was very much on the mind of whoever was drawing these."

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, has said he intends to run for re-election despite the redrawing of his district.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, took issue that bare-knuckled politics influence decisions over the maps.

"It's math. It's math and geography and case law and precedent. I'm very proud of both maps. We worked very hard on the Senate map," Johnson said after the panel approved the redistricting maps, which go through a standing committee next week. He said the earliest the redistricting plans could be on the Senate floor would be Thursday.

Asked why Watson was absorbing a number of Gardenhire's Democratic-leaning precincts in Hamilton County, Johnson said it was "just math. As I said, with everything shifting towards Middle Tennessee, you've got Hamilton County and a full Senate district, which you're required to have, and you've got the remainder. Sen. Watson has the all-inclusive, inside-the-county district. Sen. Gardenhire has the excess.

"For the past 20 years [Gardenhire's district has] gone easterly to make up the difference, but with all that compression and population growth and the shift towards Middle Tennessee, Gardenhire had to go westerly," Johnson said. "As Horace Greeley said, 'Go west young man.'"

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said in a statement, "The recommended maps are fair and legal, disturb no currently serving legislator and preserve, as much as possible, current district composition. Despite challenging and contradictory state and federal mandates, this committee managed to keep both population deviation and county splits to historic lows."

Explosive growth in Middle Tennessee has spurred change in most congressional districts, among them the 3rd Congressional District in Tennessee held by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah. As a result, Fleischmann is getting a reunited Bradley County, which he has shared the past decade with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Sherwood Republican.

Growth in Rutherford County, which DesJarlais represents, has resulted in the Bradley County portion of his district going to Fleischmann. Both congressmen say they are happy with the results. A decade ago, legislative Republicans hoped to oust DesJarlais and drew his district further east into Bradley County in an effort to defeat him. It didn't work.

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