Tentative plans for redrawing Knox County state House districts put state Rep. Frank Niceley outside the county, give Democratic Rep. Harry Tindell more Republican voters and create a new district without an incumbent.
The broad outline of the plan is dictated, in substantial part, by population figures and legal requirements, according to legislators involved in the process. Plans have not been made public and specific details on exactly where the lines are drawn within the county are a subject of continuing debate behind closed doors.
“Everything that has been worked out is preliminary,” said Rep. Ryan Haynes, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the Knox County legislative delegation. He said the delegation will meet “in a couple of weeks” for a general discussion of the plan.
Legislative leaders say statewide plans will not be made public until late this year, or possibly not until January. But the Knox County alignment has been widely discussed and the general dynamics within the county are fairly certain.
Based on the statewide population distribution as found by the 2010 U.S. Census, the ideal state House district should have a population of 64,102. Courts have held there can be no more than 10 percent population variance from the highest population district in the state to the lowest population district in legislative districts.
That means Knox County’s population, reported at 432,226 in the most current count, is appropriate for seven House districts that would be well within the required population variances.
The county now effectively has about six and a half House districts, with Niceley’s District 17 accounting for the half. The 17th District also currently includes a portion of Jefferson County.
Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said in an interview that legislative leaders have told him the numbers involved virtually assure that he will no longer be representing any portion of Knox County after redistricting. Instead, his redrawn district will be extended from Jefferson County into a portion of Sevier County, which had a 2010 population of almost 90,000. The remainder of Sevier County would stay in District 12, now held by Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville.
“I hate to lose Knox County,” said Niceley, who said his roots in the county go back to his elementary school days. “If I thought somebody was doing that to me intentionally (for political reasons), I’d be mad about it. But because of the numbers, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, so you just take it and go on.”
Niceley said he intends to seek reelection to a new term from his revised district, though he will be a new face to most voters in the Sevier County portion of the new district.
Shuffling Democrats, Republicans.
Both Tindell’s District 13 and Armstrong’s District 15 are also impacted by population number crunching. Both Democratic districts have populations below the ideal district size, while all other districts in Knox County have populations over the ideal.
According to figures from Public Mapping Project, the highest population district within Knox County is Haynes’ District 14, which is 12,440 over. The lowest population district in the county is Armstrong’s District 15, which is 4,986 under ideal.
“Harry and Joe are under-populated, and I think it’s reasonable to say they are going to pick up voters,” said Haynes.
Under a probable scenario, some Democratic-oriented voters would be shifted from Tindell’s district into Armstrong’s district to bring the latter up to full population. Tindell’s district would then be expanded elsewhere to bring it into full population, doubtless bringing in more voters with Republican orientation.
Legal rules require creation of districts with a minority population where feasible. There are not enough blacks to create a House district with a majority population of blacks in the Knoxville area, but Haynes said it is important not to carve minority voters up into small groups where they have little impact.
“Even though there are not enough (blacks) to require that we have a minority district, it’s important to make sure they have a voice, too,” said Haynes. “Most people feel they should.”
Armstrong, who is black, has many of the county’s black voters in his district now. Tindell has most others.
For Tindell, the question is what new areas will be added to his district.
“Joe and I already have all the Democrats,” he quipped.
Tindell said he has had discussions with Republicans about the new district and is hopeful it will maintain a “community of interest” and not couple his city district with rural areas.
“If I have to start touching Sevier County, that would be a little too far,” he said, but added “I have a good feeling about what’s possible.”
Tindell said his decision on whether to seek reelection in 2012 would depend in part on how the lines wind up being drawn. Both he and Armstrong said they have seen no proposed maps of their new districts, though Tindell said Republicans have indicated a draft will be available soon.
With Niceley being pulled out of Knox County and the districts of other House members having excess population, there will be room for a new House district with no incumbent, Haynes said.
Again, the question is where the new district will be. A logical place, Haynes said, would be the northwestern portion of the county, which has been a relatively high growth area, with other districts adjusted accordingly.
“You’ve got options. It’s just a matter of how we work with existing members and they all will have a voice,” Haynes said.
In addition to Haynes’ 14th District, another district with a substantial overpopulation that is thus likely to shrink is the 16th District, now held by Rep. Bill Dunn and 10,238 over ideal population. Another is the 19th District, now held by Rep. Harry Brooks and 5,961 over ideal.
The 18th District, now held by Rep. Steve Hall, is only slightly over ideal — by 1,408 persons. The 17th District as constituted currently with Niceley in place is 3,235 over the population ideal.
(Note: Link to the current layout of Knox County House districts in map form HERE.)