While other states have completed redistricting, leaders of the process in Tennessee are just now opening the door to public input and say they may not unveil their plans for new congressional and legislative borders until January.
Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester says Republicans are being slow and secretive, counter to their boasts of being efficient and transparent. Republicans in charge of election redistricting, which takes place after every census to account for population shifts, say Democrats have operated the same way for decades.
They also say they haven’t even really begun to work on congressional districts and that various hypothetical reapportionment plans by bloggers now getting attention should be given little credence.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, both Democrats, were concerned enough about one such plan last week that they publicly urged state House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican, to block it.
Harwell said the Legislature’s website soon after Labor Day will provide a spot for citizens to offer comments and suggestions on reapportionment. The website will also provide general data and information on redistricting.
But deliberations for now are behind closed doors.
Forrester said Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey “talk about transparency and efficiency in government,” notably including the efficiency involved in a push to end this year’s legislative session early. But the redistricting process is blatantly inefficient and secretive, he said.
“With the mapping software that’s available and the census data we’ve had since last winter, there’s absolutely no reason not to have it done today,” Forrester said.
“One can only imagine that they just do not want to be transparent and efficient,” he said. “It’s another example of how Republicans talk one thing and do another.”
Deputy House Speaker Steve McDaniel, who chairs the committee drafting a state House redistricting plan, said the panel is “maybe halfway” through its deliberations. Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, a member of the three-member panel drafting a state Senate redistricting plan, said the effort is still in the preliminary stage.
Both men said congressional redistricting has yet to be addressed by the committees, which plan to eventually work together in putting together new boundaries for Tennessee’s nine congressional districts. That is a contrast to the time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and allowed the state’s incumbent Democratic congressmen to decide their districts with legislators going along.
Ketron said the committees are relying heavily on John Ryder, a Memphis attorney and Republican National Committee member retained jointly by the House and Senate Republican Caucuses for advice on redistricting. Ryder has considerable experience on the subject, having filed lawsuits for Republicans challenging past Democratic plans in court.
“He (Ryder) tells us we’re looking probably at January” as the time for unveiling the plans, which can then be approved quickly by the Legislature.”
“We’re in no hurry to get it done, but in the end we’ll draw fair and legal districts,” said McDaniel.
Forrester said leaving the new maps under wraps until then effectively prevents much planning for candidates who may want to challenge incumbents, since they do not know where the districts will be. The qualifying deadline for candidates in next year’s elections is early April.
“We are about where we would expect to be,” said Ryder. “This is a difficult sort of problem and it’s like the budget or anything else. If one person – or you and I – could sit down and draft a plan . It wouldn’t take any time at all.”
“But there are 99 (representatives) who will vote on it in the House and 33 who are going to vote on it in the Senate with the governor sitting in the background with his pen . And a lot of people looking over your shoulder to make sure it’s done right,” he said.
Ryder said his role is primarily as a legal adviser, although he acknowledges that requires some drafting of tentative maps. None have been made public, and Ryder said the timing for doing so will be up to the speakers.
McDaniel said he hopes the House plan will be largely complete by Thanksgiving, but both he and Harwell hedged on whether it will be made public before January when presented to legislative committees. Ketron said he does not anticipate a Senate plan until later than that.
As for a congressional plan, Ketron said: “Maybe John Ryder has a map. I haven’t seen one.”
McDaniel said the House committee “has not had any discussion regarding a plan for congressional districts.”
Cooper and Dean last week told Nashville media they were concerned that the 5th Congressional District seat, now held by Democrat Cooper, would be carved up to enhance prospects for a Republican unseating Cooper. Dean released a letter he sent Harwell urging her to stop the plan.
“I think Congressman Cooper may be overreacting in fear of his job,” said Harwell.
Ryder said the map that triggered Cooper’s concern, generated by a Texas blogger, is “his plan and not anything that anybody (involved in the process) had anything to do with.”
“An Internet blog on redistricting is subject to all the caveats that should accompany anything you see on the Internet,” Ryder said, adding that some he has seen “strike me as bizarre,” though others struck him as including “an interesting idea, that maybe you could use to solve a drafting problem.”
Georgia completed its redistricting this week in a special legislative session. McDaniel said that, given state budget constraints, it is not reasonable for Tennessee to hold a special legislative session on the subject and would be necessary to speed things up.
Though some other neighboring states are further along in the process, at least to the point of making plans public, Ryder said Tennessee is roughly in the middle insofar as timing goes.