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.”