Tennessee Senate Republicans to approve new political boundaries amid Democrats' criticism

Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashvile, looks over a House Republican redistricting plan on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. The once-a-decade redistricting plan follows the 2010 Census and reflects shifting population and political trends. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Republican senators are poised to approve new lines for state and congressional districts Thursday amid criticism from Democratic lawmakers and others that the maps are racially discriminatory in some instances.

During debate on Senate GOP maps earlier this week, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Black Democrat from Nashville, raised concerns about the divisions of Black voters in areas, including Hamilton County, pointing to the plan for state Senate seats.

"When we look at a Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga, District 10 and 11 places the Black population in Chattanooga into two separate districts," Gilmore told Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. "Was there any consideration in keeping Hamilton's African American population whole?"

Johnson replied, "The answer to your question is all those considerations were considered."

The majority leader said that with explosive population growth in Nashville and other parts of Middle Tennessee, districts in East Tennessee were pulled west while districts in West Tennessee were pulled east.

"With Hamilton County, you had a similar situation where the expansion from a geographic standpoint was pushing westward towards Middle Tennessee," Johnson said. "And again, in an effort not to pair incumbents, in an effort to maintain the lowest possible [population] deviation, and to maintain the fewest county splits, the way it is presented to you today makes the most sense."

Senate District 10 is represented by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and up until now has included most Black majority precincts. But a number of those have now been moved into Senate District 11, represented by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

While shedding largely Black precincts such as Orchard Knob and Glenwood, Gardenhire is also moving entirely out of the areas he held in adjacent Bradley County, which has a largely white population. The district now reaches west to take in white majority counties Marion, Sequatchie and Bledsoe.

Gardenhire was re-elected to the seat in 2020 in a spirited contest with former Chattanooga Deputy Police Chief Glenn Scruggs, a Black Democrat. Gardenhire won with 53.2% but lost his portion of Hamilton County to Scruggs.

Gardenhire told the Times Free Press he wasn't consulted on map specifics. Republicans' Senate map preserves their 27-6 majority in the upper chamber.

While House Republicans took aim at Democratic state representatives and looped nine of their incumbents in Shelby, Davidson and Knox into five districts, Senate Republicans did not take similar actions against Democrats in their chamber.

Republicans have a 73-26 majority over Democrats in the House.

Both the House and Senate GOP plans seek to give Republicans control of another congressional seat, raising GOP representation from 7-2 to an 8-1 majority of the state's congressional delegation.

Republicans are setting about doing that by splitting up the 5th Congressional District, primarily by divvying up Nashville among the 5th, held by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat. The 5th District will now be joined with a number of counties to the south, including a portion of Williamson County and Maury County.

The 6th District, held by Republican U.S. Rep. John Rose of Cookeville, will now extend down into Nashville. And so will the 7th District, held by U.S. Rep. Mark Green, Republican of Ashland City.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing Tuesday, Democrats repeatedly criticized Republicans for their division of Nashville.

Charlane Oliver, co-director of the Equity Alliance, called for lawmakers to keep Davidson whole, charging the GOP plan was "discriminatory, divisive, anti-Democratic and blatantly racist" toward Blacks who represent about a quarter of the district's population.

House Republicans expect to take up their redistricting plans, which match the Senate's, next week.

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