Fifty years ago, there was no pretense.
The Democratic majority in the Tennessee legislature wanted to turn a 5-4 advantage in congressional districts — given the removal of a congressional seat from the state after the 1970 census — to a 6-2 advantage.
The Associated Press wrote it with a straight face and no political bent.
- "A select committee of Democrats has been working on a master plan [for legislative reapportionment]. The bill is highly partisan." (1/18/1972)
- " Democrats passed a congressional redistricting bill aimed at giving six of the eight congressional seats to Democrats next year " (4/7/1972)
- The redrawing is "believed to lessen [Republican U.S. Rep. Dan] Kuykendall's chances of returning to Washington in January." (4/19/1972)
News reports in Chattanooga newspapers reported:
- "A recent survey among Democrats in the legislature indicates their main objective will be to pass a congressional redistricting bill designed to increase the number of Democrats." (1/16/1972)
- "The plans are designed to give the Democrats five and possibly six of the congressional seats." (4/9/1972)
- "Democrats in the legislature earlier this year redesigned the 8th [congressional] District with a view toward giving their party's nominee the best possible chance of beating the Republican incumbent." (11/1/1972)
- "The Democratic legislature sought through congressional redistricting to make the Third District [which included Chattanooga] Democratic." 11/8/1972
A Chattanooga Times opinion stated this:
- "The screaming was by Republicans because Democrats were and are in the majority in the legislature and, naturally, were giving approval to the plan which favored them the most and the GOP the least." (4/13/1972)
Today, maps by Republican-led Tennessee House and Senate members suggest parts of the state's 5th District (represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville) could be carved into other districts. Some speculate it would give the GOP a better chance of winning the district, which would give Republicans eight of the state nine congressional seats.
Democrats, though, are aghast. How could Republicans be so unfair? So mean-spirited?
We return you now to the 1972 debate over the then-in-charge Democrats' plans.
The congressional redistricting bill is "fair," said state Rep. Ned McWherter, D-Dresden, who in the next decade would become Tennessee's governor, and was drawn "as reasonable as we could" to elect as many Democrats as possible.
"This is a good plan for the people of Tennessee," he said a couple of days later, adding that Republicans could stall "all you want, but we've got the votes and you don't, and come hell or high water we're going to pass it."
"That's how you play the game," McWherter added.
Did Republicans at the time say, as Democrats often do today, that the process had to be changed, that it needed to be turned over to a (wink, wink) independent committee, that it was discriminatory, that it violated their voting rights?
No, because as McWherter suggested, they knew the party in charge called the shots. Democrats had won the elections to give them a majority in both houses. They held all the cards.
"I realize we're licked let's vote," said state Rep. Ed Bailey, R-Lexington.
"[W]e've tried all honorable means to stop it go ahead and do it to us," said state Sen. Houston Goddard, R-Maryville.
Even U.S. Rep. LaMar Baker, who represented Chattanooga, was resigned to the idea, saying he was "disappointed" but had no plans to file a lawsuit to try to stop it.
Other state Republicans weren't as fatalistic.
Gov. Winfield Dunn said he would "veto the hell out of" the bill, and he did. The Democrats promptly overrode his veto.
"It is incomprehensible," he said several months later, "that the Democratic majority could have handled the redistricting responsibility with such utter disregard for the fairness and the convenience of the citizens of Tennessee."
Unfortunately for Democrats, in a year in which Republican President Richard Nixon swept to re-election, things didn't work out so well.
Kuykendall's Memphis district, which Democrats made 40% Black and otherwise filled with rank-and-file white Democrats, re-elected him. He would last only one more term, though, before being defeated in a controversial election by Harold Ford in the Democrats' 1974 post-Watergate sweep.
Baker, meanwhile, also survived, winning by more than 20,000 votes.
"We don't object to redistricting, not when you win by 15,000 or 16,000 votes," he said after the election.
Baker, too, was swept away in 1974, when the district elected Marilyn Lloyd, who stepped in for husband, Mort, who had died in a plane crash shortly after winning the Democratic nomination in August. Lloyd would go on to serve 10 terms before retiring.
The GOP's upset of the Democrats' well-planned apple cart did not cement the Republicans' solid majorities of 50 years later, but it did presage them.
In 2022, Democrats may cry foul over the carving of districts, but Republican could argue, as the former Democratic legislative strategist — and later governor — did, "We've got the votes and you don't. That's how you play the game."