Tennessee redistricting creates GOP advantage

Tennessee legislatures voted Jan. 26 to adopt new congressional district boundaries. District 8, where Union is located, is distinguished in dark yellow. Graphic courtesy of Tennessee General Assembly

By Alex Brown, Editor-in-Chief

As Republican presi­dential candidates tra­verse the country in their efforts to win the party’s support, legis­lators closer to home are preparing for the November elections by reaching out to new constituents in re­aligned districts.

Tennessee legisla­tors set new boundar­ies for congressional, state House and state Senate districts early in the year, and Gov. Bill Haslam signed the maps into law Jan. 26. The maps passed the GOP-controlled state legislature by a wide margin and would seem to bolster Republican gains, packing Dem­ocratic-leaning pre­cincts into marginalized districts and making GOP-held districts less competitive.

The maps include changes to all three dis­tricts in which Union lies: congressional Dis­trict 8, state House Dis­trict 73 and state Senate District 27.

Not surprisingly, the legislators from each state district — one a Republican and one a Democrat — are split in their assessment of the results.

“I’m happy with it,” said state Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, a Republican who represents District 73. “It was very fair. The whole process was very fair. It’s a very complex process, but it moved along rather smoothly.”

State Sen. Lowe Finney, a Democrat from District 27, said the redistricting process was rushed, al­though he was not upset with the overall results. He said a slower process would have been more thorough and fair.

“My concern was one of process more than product,” Finney said. “I was presented with a map and told, ‘Here’s what your district is.’ … I would have preferred a more open, slower pro­cess that would have engaged mem­bers of the public more.”

Of the lo­cal districts, Finney’s saw the most dras­tic changes. The Jack­son resident represented Madison, Gib­son and Car­roll counties prior to the redistricting, but his new district con­sists of Madi­son, Crockett, Lauderdale, Dyer and Lake counties.

Finney, who is not up for re-election until 2014, said he is not sure if he will seek to retain his seat but said the changes to his dis­trict would not affect his decision.

He declined to spec­ulate on what the re­aligned district would mean for his campaign chances, saying he is accustomed to winning despite long odds.

“Both of my cam­paigns were uphill battles,” Finney said. “I think you win re-election if you demonstrate to people that you’re work­ing on things that they care about.”

Eldridge is no stranger to the redistricting pro­cess and said Republi­cans approached the pro­cess with more fairness than the Democratic ef­forts in 2002.

He rejected Finney’s assertion that legisla­tors did not put enough time and care into the planning.

“(Democrats) drew lines (in past years) to benefit their party,” El­dridge said. “(This year’s redistricting) was not rushed. The process be­gan over the summer. Maybe in one district, we left out a county. Any­body can make a mistake, but we corrected it.”

Tipton County was ac­cidentally omitted from the original plans and was added with a later amendment, a move Finney said signified the haste of the process.

Eldridge said that complaint is baseless and said the support the plan received from some Democrats proves the process was conducted fairly.

Eldridge’s District 73 has seen its fair share of change, and he said he thinks the realignment will benefit his district.

Much of northern Madison County was divided un­der the previous align­ment, including areas near Union.

Pipkin Road served as part of the dividing line for Districts 73 and 82, but District 73 will now take on a greater portion of the county’s north­western area.

Eldridge also will gain a small tract across the U.S. 45 Bypass from Union that had belonged to District 80.

“It’s a win-win for the citizens of Madison Coun­ty, and it’s a win-win for me,” Eldridge said. “I’m happy with it, (and) the majority of my colleagues are happy with it.”

Eldridge said he was excited to gain constitu­ents in northern Madi­son County, especially given the circumstances of his first election win in 2002.

The Democrat-led re­districting plans enacted earlier in the year placed some of northern Madi­son County in District 80, including Eldridge’s residence on White Plains Drive.

Eldridge, undeterred, moved three miles east to Emerald Lake Drive, back within District 73.

“(Democrats) carved me out of my district, so I turned around and bought a house in Dis­trict 73,” Eldridge said. “I had to move back into my district to run. Was that fair?”

Now that much of that area has been reclaimed by District 73, Eldridge said he is happy to have northern Madison Coun­ty back in the fold. He emphasized that regard­less of his electorate, he “represents everyone in Tennessee.”

On the national scale, U.S. Rep. Stephen Finch­er’s District 8 did not change boundaries near Union, but it did trade some precincts with Dis­trict 9 in the North Mem­phis area. According to analysis by the Daily Kos, a progressive blog, District 8 gained largely white precincts while giv­ing up heavily black pre­cincts, swinging the dis­trict further to the right.

Fincher did not re­spond to requests for comment, but Eldridge denied that Republicans were trying to marginal­ize black voters or use racial demographics for political gain.

“Racial issues didn’t have anything to do with it,” Eldridge said. “That was just the way it happened.”

Finney declined to speculate on the motiva­tion behind the mapping but said a more open pro­cess would have helped avoid the issue. He also said it is incumbent on the party in power to consider the effects of redistricting on minority communities.

Despite the disagree­ments and accusations that accompanied the re­districting process, legis­lators say they are eager to move forward with their new districts.

“I look forward to representing (my new) counties,” Finney said. “I’ve got a lot of miles to drive and a lot of people to meet.”

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