Sunday Column: Redistricting a Political Triumph (fair & legal? not so much)

The Republican redistricting mantra, recited repeatedly before and during the unveiling of the official state House and Senate maps last week, was declaring the result of the party’s first-ever Tennessee reapportionment would be “fair and legal.”
Whether the work product now on display and ready for rocketing through the Legislature this week meets that standard is as debatable as whether Fox News is “fair and balanced” as repeatedly proclaimed by the network — at least on the fairness front.
Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. Or maybe the beholder’s political mindset.
On an objective basis, it’s reasonable to say the redistricting plans are fair enough to make their fairness debatable. Going beyond that is a matter of partisan opinion.
On the legal front, the answer will be provided by the court system. Democrats say they are virtually certain to file a court challenge, barring some last-minute changes before enactment. Treatment of minorities in the House plan seems to be a particular source of Democratic hopes for courtroom success.

But the plans were drawn under the oversight of Republican attorney John Ryder, a veteran of decades of legal combat over redistricting issues. My guess is that Ryder has the legal ducks in a row, making lawsuits a long shot.
On the political front, however, there’s not much debate.
The Republican plans are a success in advancing the GOP agenda of complete domination of the Legislature.
The goal is having more than a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate, which would mean, for procedural reasons, that the Democrats are utterly powerless. With less than a dozen members of the Senate or 33 in the House, the Democrats could not boycott the proceedings and Republicans could march on with the required quorums.
“On paper, they’ve maxed out what they can do to pick up seats,” concedes House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.
The paper shows Democrats down four seats in the House, just for starters, because eight incumbent Democrats are dumped into four districts to run against one another. Two other incumbent Democrats are thrown into districts with an incumbent Republican — with the district designed to favor the Republican candidate.
So that gets the Republican plan to the point of anticipating the elimination of six sitting Democrats. They already have a 64-34 majority in the House, with one Independent.
Then there are six new House seats with no incumbent. These vary somewhat in partisan alignment, but on first blush it appears that at least four — including Knox County’s new open seat — are pretty strong GOP turf.
And, of course, the plan in general packs suspected Democratic voters into as few districts as possible and aims to make other Democratic seats more vulnerable to Republican attack than before.
In Knox County, for example, the district held by Rep. Joe Armstrong may be seen as packed with Democrats while the seat held by Rep. Harry Tindell is being made more vulnerable.
In the Senate, the Republican plan is designed to eliminate Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, the Senate’s top Democrat, and make re-election more difficult for Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney and others. There are two new seats, both in Middle Tennessee. One, anchored in Sumner County, is seen as a Republican lock. The other, anchored in Maury County, is more debatable.
The Republicans, then, figure they stand to pick up at least a half-dozen seats in the House and two in the Senate.
Of course, figuring on paper doesn’t always translate well into political reality. Recall that the districts, as established in 1992 by Democratic majorities, wound up translating into Republican majorities over the years.
And there are places, even on paper, where the GOP expectations may be a bit shaky — maybe, for a specific example, the pairing of Republican Rep. Jim Cobb of Spring City with Democratic Rep. Bill Harmon of Dunlap. And, in general, some of the current freshman GOP class of 14 may be vulnerable to Democratic challengers.
Still, as a project to devastate Democrats on paper, the plans seem a clear partisan triumph.
Even if that’s unfair and/or illegal.
(Note: This is a Sunday column written for the News Sentinel, also available HERE.

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