The new state Senate redistricting plan, which likely will be enacted into law on Friday, divides the city of Knoxville among three senators in a move some Democratic legislators say will dilute city influence.
That criticism is disputed by Republicans and, along with other complaints, was been set aside as GOP majorities in House and Senate committees approved the bills drawing new lines for Senate, House and congressional districts statewide.
The House has a final floor vote scheduled for today on all three redistricting bills with the Senate planning to give its approval on Friday. That would send the measures to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature just over a week after they were made public.
Late Wednesday, Democrats were meeting behind closed doors with Republican leadership about redistricting, several lawmakers said. The apparent topic was to have Democrats drop parliamentary maneuvering that could stall the final vote in exchange for some minor adjustments to the plans in specific House and Senate districts.
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, noted that the Senate plan will bring Sen. Randy McNally’s district from suburban and rural areas adjoining Anderson County into the downtown area for the first time. He joked that districts of McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and fellow Republican Sens. Stacey Campfield and Becky Duncan Massey “will intersect on Gay Street.”
Actually, the publicly-available map indicates a narrow strip of Campfield’s Senate District 7 will stand between the other two districts. But the three senators will all represents substantive portions within the city limits for the first time.
Armstrong and Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, who in a separate situation stands to be denied a chance to seek reelection by the Republican plan, said the GOP revisions will weaken the voice of Knoxville’s citizens.
“When you’ve got three, you’ve got none,” said Armstrong. “This takes the central city into the suburbs. It’s diluting the municipalities.”
Kyle said the Republican Senate plan has a “pattern” of undercutting the political influence of larger cities. There are similar impacts on the cities of Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, he said, that mean urban voters will be unable to unite and hold their senators accountable because of a split electorate.
McNally and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsor of the redistricting bills, said that the opposite is true. Because Knoxvillians will now have three senators to directly influence as voters, they said, the city’s political clout is actually increased.
“They (city residents) have got more representation, so I think that’lll be a good thing,” said McNally, though acknowledging “you can argue it either way.”
Under the current Senate district plan, McNally’s District 5 stretches south to include Monroe County,which is dropped from the district by the new plan.
Norris said the plan is “balancing the interests of the state and federal requirements” for redistricting while, overall, uniting “communities of interest” around the state. He disagreed with Kyle’s contention of a pattern in undercutting big city clout.
Democrats have offered multiple amendments to change the redistricting plans – joined on occasion by a handful of Republicans unhappy with the proposals. The plans have fewer split counties overall than the current plans, but do split some counties that are now whole.
For example, Roane County is split in the House plan while Bradley County is split in the Senate plan, which adds voters in the Republican-dominated county to the district held by Democratic Sen. Andy Berke of Chattanooga.
All major amendments offered in House and Senate committees during a marathon day of debate Tuesday were rejected except one that dealt with Kyle’s situation.
Kyle said Democrats have considered offering an amendment on the floor that would have all voters within the city limits of Knoxville placed in a single Senate district, adding some suburban area to make the population proper. But he acknowledged that could do little more than make a rhethorical point.
“It’s very problematic to pass an amendment for Knoxville if nobody in Knoxville wants it,” he said.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero did not return a call to a spokesman seeking comment on redistricting impact on the city.
The congressional redistricting plan has been adopted as an amendment to HB1558. The House plan is HB1555 and the Senate plan SB1514.