NASHVILLE -- Tennessee House Republicans plan to use redistricting to cement and expand their 64-34 majority over Democrats, GOP lawmakers said.
Democrats say their "worst-case scenario" has them down five to six seats, based on information received from Republicans. But Democrats argue they could fare better because some Republicans face tough re-election contests.
Republicans are wielding the "power of the pen" to redraw district lines for the first time in Tennessee history. They won a legislative majority in 2010.
They're looking at creating GOP districts next year in Hamilton, Knox, Rutherford and Williamson counties. In other cases, they are hoping to make some Democratic districts more competitive for GOP candidates.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said GOP lawmakers will draw districts "in a fair and legal way that will withstand any scrutiny in any courts and try to keep communities together in the process."
Demographic changes, such as slower population growth in some Democratic districts and higher growth in Republican areas, will drive GOP gains in the once-a-decade redistricting process, McCormick said.
"We would be hard-pressed not to pare some of them [Democrats], but it won't be out of this idea that we're trying to pad our numbers," McCormick said. "I think it will just be unavoidable."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said if Republicans carry out their plans, "they could probably pick up, I don't know, five or six seats maybe" under what he called a "worst-case scenario."
"But," the Nashville Democrat said, "at the same time they've got some districts they can't do anything about, really. They're fairly Democratic, and I think we should be able to pick up" three to five seats.
Some have projected a net Republican gain of one to three seats in 2012 elections, depending on how state and national campaigns, including the presidential race, play out.
If Republicans got 66 seats, they would have a two-thirds "supermajority" and easily could quash debate, suspend rules and conduct business even if all Democrats walked out.
The 99-member chamber has one independent, who often sides with Republicans.
Tennessee Democratic Party attorney Gerard Stranch scoffed at GOP assertions that its plan is fair.
After listening to Democratic lawmakers, he said the GOP plan "calls for squeezing as many Republican seats in as possible by moving district lines" and squeezing Democrats out.
"They're trying to do that in districts with large Democratic votes and split them into just one minority-majority [black majority] district," Stranch charged.
The GOP already has said it plans to place two black Chattanooga Democrats -- Rep. Tommie Brown and Rep. Joanne Favors -- in the same district.
Brown's district is majority black and must stay that way under the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
But McCormick has said blacks now comprise just 50.3 percent of the district and more are needed. He said Brown also needs 10,412 more people to meet the required House district size of 64,102. Senate districts must have 192,306 people.
Republicans plan to take people from Favors' district to shore up Brown's.
They also are creating a new Republican-leaning district in Hamilton that is expected to include Ooltewah and part of Collegedale.
Valoria Armstrong, president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County branch of the NAACP, said the group has met with Brown, Favors and McCormick to discuss what is happening.
"Our only concerns boiled down to wanting to make sure there are no violations of the Voting Rights Act," she said. So far, "we have not been able to determine at this point there is a violation."
The NAACP will continue to monitor the situation, Armstrong said.
PARTISAN FACTS OF LIFE
Shelby County is losing two House seats based on population shifts. Two white Democrats' districts there will be changed, and two black Democrats, Reps. G.A. Hardaway and Barbara Cooper, will wind up in the same district.
Democrats are warning they might sue over the changes in Hamilton and Shelby counties.
"There's still probably enough Democrats [in Hamilton] that they can draw Joanne [Favors] a fairly safe district," Turner said.
Republican attorney John Ryder, of Memphis, is advising GOP House and Senate members on redistricting.
Ryder said Democrats' analysis of GOP plans is "faulty, it's flawed, it's wrong and either based on bad information or bad analysis."
He said partisanship in redistricting is "an inevitable fact of political life" and pointed to Democratic redistricting plans in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that were thrown out by courts.
Ryder noted Tennessee Democrats went half a century without reapportioning districts based on population growth, favoring rural areas over cities. That was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case.
"Remember, the Democrats controlled the General Assembly during the entirety of the 20th century and ... never passed a legal" plan, he said.
Few details have emerged about Senate redistricting plans. Republicans have a 20-13 advantage in that chamber.
Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said while several "conceptual plans" have been presented, nothing has been decided.
The General Assembly also will reapportion and redraw the state's nine congressional districts.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...