published Monday, January 16th, 2012

Newly drawn district boundaries forces Tennessee lawmakers to compete for legislative seats

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — They’ve worked together for years, sometimes sat side-by-side at the state Capitol and often stuck together despite party on economic development and other issues affecting Southeast Tennessee.

But now, six area lawmakers could be duking it out over three legislative seats as a result of newly drawn district boundaries approved Friday by the Republican-led Tennessee General Assembly.

Similar dramas are playing out across the state. House Republicans are hoping to boost their current 64-34 majority by at least two seats — and likely more — through a redistricting plan they say is “fair and legal.”

Senate Republicans also hope to boost their 20-13 majority between two and 25 seats over the coming decade.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to sign the redistricting plans for the state’s 99 House, 33 Senate and nine congressional seats.

The filing deadline for state candidates is April 5.

In Southeast Tennessee, here’s how things are shaping up:

• Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, is weighing a challenge to Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, in the 10th Senatorial District, redrawn to favor a Republican candidate.

Berke, meanwhile, is deciding whether to run for re-election or make a bid to become Chattanooga’s next mayor.

• Chattanooga’s 28th House District may have a Democratic primary contest between longtime allies Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors, both black Democrats.

Many of the black voters in Favor’s 29th District were moved to Brown’s 28th District. Republicans say — and Favors and Brown agree — it was necessary to keep the 28th majority black under the federal Voting Rights Act. Favors’ district has a substantial number of black voters but not a majority.

• Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, both say they intend to run in Cobb’s redrawn 31st Legislative District after Harmon’s Democratic-leaning 37th District was broken up. Cobb’s Rhea County-based district, meanwhile, moves out of northern Hamilton but picks up new voters elsewhere, including Harmon’s home county of Sequatchie.

The 10th Senate District

In last-minute shuffling Friday, Senate Republicans shifted several precincts among the 10th and 11th districts.

Berke regained several black-majority precincts in Chattanooga that had been put into the 11th District, represented by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, of Hixson. Watson, in turn, got back several Republican white-majority precincts that had been added to the 10th.

The final map for the 10th District includes part of heavily Republican Bradley County. The district is about 52 percent Republican, compared with the 57 percent originally planned.

In an interview over the weekend, Dean, a former East Ridge city councilman and mayor, said the last-minute tweaks won’t affect his decision.

“I’m seriously still considering it,” said Dean, adding that he is getting a lot of encouragement. “I don’t think I have to make up my mind today, but it’s definitely still on the table because the more I look at it, the more doable I think it is.”

Berke said Friday he still believes he can win the district, noting that his record on issues such as job development have bipartisan appeal. But he said he is “absolutely” and “seriously considering” a mayoral bid.

“Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at what my options are,” Berke said. “I am firmly committed to economic development and moving Southeast Tennessee forward. My family and I will discuss the best ways that I can serve.”

Berke previously has shown his sights are on higher office. In 2009, he explored running for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

And being mayor of a major Tennessee city has proved a successful launching pad for statewide office in recent years. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam, both Republicans, respectively served as mayors of Chattanooga and Knoxville. Democrat Phil Bredesen was Nashville’s mayor before he was elected governor in 2002.

House District 28

Favors said over the weekend she is “really considering [running] strongly. I will announce whether I will or not in as short a time as possible.” Like Dean, she said she’s receiving a lot of encouragement, but added, “I want to make sure I feel the pulse of the community.”

Favors, a retired nurse, said she knows many of the voters who were moved from her 29th District to Brown’s 28th. She grew up within what’s now the 28th District and developed additional ties when she served as administrator of the Southside and Dodson Avenue Community Health centers.

“When I first realized [she and Brown] might be opponents, it wasn’t a good feeling, of course, because I have the utmost respect for [Brown] and have been serving in the General Assembly with her these last eight years.

“However, it’s up to the citizens, and I had to recognize that, and several citizens tell me that.”

It’s also not clear whether Brown will run. She said last week, “That’s among the issues we shall ponder” at an upcoming meeting she has called with the 28th District Assembly of constituents she formed years ago.

Brown said she usually picks up qualifying papers at the last minute.

“I’ve been known to file on the last day, at the last moment. So no one should draw any conclusions because I don’t pick them up on the first day,” she said.

If she and Favors face off, said Brown, a retired sociology professor, “I think we would probably create the model for this kind of contest. We’d show people how it ought to be done” by focusing on issues and aspirations.

House District 31

In recent interviews, Cobb and Harmon both said they will run in the reshaped 31st District. It includes Rhea, a section of Roane County and two counties Harmon now represents, Sequatchie and Bledsoe.

“I’m OK with it,” Cobb said, later adding in response to a question, “Can I win in that district? Yes.”

He said he would have preferred the district to go farther east and north, but “there wasn’t the elbow room available without busting the upper limit on population requirements. So they had to pretty much send me west.”

Harmon said last week he isn’t going to just give up.

“Well, he’ll have to beat me. I plan to run,” he said, adding that he has “good friends” in all the new counties except Roane.

“I’ll just have to see what I feel like my chances are against Rep. Cobb,” Harmon said. “I feel like I’m a whole lot better representative than he is for rural Tennesseans. But I’ll just have to talk to people.”

On Friday, though, Republicans speculated that Harmon might be lured by the unchanged 16th Senate District. Its incumbent, Democrat Eric Stewart, of Belvidere, is giving up the seat to run for Congress in the 4th District.

The 16th includes all four counties Harmon now represents — Sequatchie, Marion, Grundy and Van Buren — plus Coffee, Franklin and Warren counties. Harmon was unavailable over the weekend to discuss his interest in the district.

House Districts 39 and 92

The House map splits Marion County. About two-thirds is in District 39, held by Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, which includes part of Franklin County and all of Moore County. The rest goes into a new 92nd District, which includes parts of Franklin and Lincoln and all of Marshall County.

Grundy County goes into the 43rd District, held by Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta.

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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