published Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Tennessee GOP eyes 9 seats in House

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    Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville

NASHVILLE — State House Democrats could lose as many as nine seats under a Republican-drawn legislative redistricting plan to be presented publicly for the first time this morning, Democrats said.

The GOP plan will put Democrats currently representing eight districts into four districts, forcing them to run against each other, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, told caucus members.

In a fifth case, Republicans intend to put Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, into the 31st Legislative District held by Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City. It is expected to be a Republican-leaning district, and Cobb, who represents all of Rhea County, is vacating the Hamilton County portion of his district.

Among the districts being merged are four now represented by black Democrats, including previously disclosed plans to put Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, who now represents the 29th Legislative District, into the 28th Legislative District held by Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga.

Republicans also intend to put Reps. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, into the same district, Turner said. Both lawmakers are black.

"What really concerns me is the African-Americans will lose at least two seats," Turner said.

Because Tennessee's black population has grown, according to the 2010 U.S. census, Democrats would explore whether there are any violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, he said.

While warning fellow Democrats they could lose seven to nine seats, Turner said a more likely "worst-case scenario" is a net Republican gain of four seats, depending on the 2012 elections.

"Some of the [Republican] freshmen have not had a real stellar first year," Turner said, and that should make them vulnerable.

House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, previously has said that folding the black population of Favors' district into Brown's is necessary because the percentage of minority voters in Brown's majority-black district now hovers around 50 percent. Favors' district is not majority black and does not enjoy Voting Rights Act protections, Republicans say.

Republicans, Turner said, also will seek to merge two Shelby County House districts now held by Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, who is black, and Rep. Jeannie Richardson, D-Memphis, who is white, into a single district.

In Davidson County, Republicans plan to put Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, into the same district as Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville. Both lawmakers are white. A new, Democratic-leaning open district will be created. Turner said because of that, the move is "punitive" and appears to be personality-driven.

Republicans, meanwhile, hope to damage former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, of Covington, with a stroke of the redistricting pen. Plans call for making increasingly Republican Tipton County -- Naifeh's home, which he lost in 2010 -- into a single House district.

They're also putting Reps. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, and Gary Moore, D-Nashville, into Republican-leaning districts.

House Republicans currently have a 64-34 majority in the House. There is one independent, a former Republican.

A gain of just two seats would give the GOP a two-thirds majority, allowing members to easily cut off debate and even conduct business with only Republicans if Democrats ever sought to walk out.

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, noted 66 votes would also give Republicans the power to pass any proposed constitutional amendment they want on the ballot.

During Tuesday's caucus meeting, Democrats complained the GOP plan will first go today before an "ad hoc" redistricting plan comprised solely of Republicans. It then goes to a Republican State and Local Government subcommittee. It could be up for a vote a week from Thursday.

While Turner said most Democrats, if not all, have been shown how the GOP plan affects them, only he and Democratic leaders have been shown the entire map and that only for a short period of time.

"I think the people of Tennessee have a right to see this map" before it is passed, Turner said.

Democrats today likely will have a difficult time offering amendments that seek to alter the plan, Turner said, because of possible last-minute changes and a lack of detailed information about districts.

But he remained hopeful that some Republicans could be unhappy about their districts and possibly join with Democrats. However, Tennessee Republican Party rules put any Republicans seeking to do that in jeopardy.

Naifeh noted that when Democrats controlled the majority during 2002 redistricting, they listened to Republican complaints and wound up relenting.

Senate Republicans are expected to release their redistricting plans this week as well.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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