Jan 18 2012

Compromise and Discourse in Redistricting

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Problem Solving, Nashville Style

If you’ve been watching the news or reading the newspaper, you’ve probably seen a story or 12 about redistricting. Federal, State and Local levels of government are in the process of doing that very thing here in Tennessee. The photo to the left is House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Caucus Chair Mike Turner. Both Democratic Representatives in the Tennessee House, they were forced to make a compromise, and did so in the best way they knew how. Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The process at the state level has been shrouded in mystery. Maps weren’t released to the public until a week before session and they’ve been pretty well rammed through both legislative bodies. Overall, while the state process has been about as transparent as a slab of concrete and rife with a bad aftertaste of blind self-interest trumping leadership.

By contrast, the process at the County level has been pretty out in the open. There are more plans than you can shake a stick at here in Shelby County, and all of them can be found here as well as their supporting documents. That doesn’t mean it’s been all roses.

Thursday it was reported that an Arlington Chamber of Commerce meeting turned into a rumble between competing sides of the redistricting battle here in the County. Last night, Terry Roland’s community meeting in Collierville was hijacked resulting in a police visit to the event.

With all the shenanigans surrounding the issue, it would seem that today’s meeting of the County Commission would have the potential to be a barn burner, something confirmed on twitter yesterday by Commissioner Chris Thomas to Lauren Lee of Fox 13.

No one knows what Thomas, et. al. have up their sleeve, but this kind of confidence can only come from coordinating with other elected officials, which just may be a violation of those Sunshine Laws the TN House has decided not to mess with this year.

On the Issue

While the issue of redistricting in the County Government could be framed as an intellectual debate over single-member versus multi-member districts, the reality is this all comes down to ideology. Commissioners Thomas, Bunker, Taylor and Shafer want to ensure that there are six safe Republican seats on the Commission. Mind you “safe” means 60% or more. The easiest way to do that is to make huge districts that pack all the Democrats they can into two-three member districts, and all the Republicans they can into two other three member districts. The final district would be what it would be. Voila! a 7-6 split on party and most likely racial lines.

Now, this only seems fair to the side that’s getting disproportionately more than they deserve. In committee discussions from December, Bunker, Thomas and Taylor all spoke of their concerns about the County Commission becoming 8-5 or worse, 9-4 based on partisanship. Oh the humanity!

Breaking Down Partisanship

I decided to look at some election results. All of these are general elections and can be found at the TN Secretary of State website.

What does this tell us? Shelby County votes Democratic more often than not, surprise, surprise. There is only one instance when Republicans outperformed Democrats in Shelby Co. in the past five November elections, Sen. Lamar Alexander, in 2008.

Taken all together, Shelby County consistently votes about 60.6% Democratic, which translates to 7.88 members of the County Commission.

This is why Taylor, Bunker, Shafer, and Thomas are concerned. This is why they’re asking for 60% majorities in Republican districts by partisanship. This is why they want huge districts. Its easier for a powerful minority to neutralize the majority that way.

African-Americans have dealt with this kind of chicanery since the end of the Civil War. Now, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and several court cases, African-Americans MUST be represented in proportion to their population. Partisanship is not protected, and these four Republicans know they will be rewarded by members of their party for artificially maintaining a 7-6 balance.

What About the Other Three?

Of course, this opens up the question of why Commissioners Brooks, Burgess and Ford, all Democrats, support a plan that would artificially prop up a fledgling Republican minority.

Brooks, who is term-limited, has indicated she would like to see voter outreach and education if the districts are changed to single member districts. Seems simple enough. Maybe someone should offer that.

Burgess has been relatively silent on the issue. I wouldn’t want to opine about his motivations without further information.

Ford, the maker of the motion, with the blessing and assistance of Interim Commissioner Brent Taylor and GOP redistricting guru John Ryder, has been very clear. He has future ambitions. Just days after getting elected in an unopposed August General election, Ford indicated that he would like, someday, to be Mayor.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Truth is, ambition can be a motivator that drives people to do more and better than they might do otherwise. We should want driven representatives who use their office to prove their worth and build a name for themselves by representing their constituents in a way that makes everyone want to be represented by them.

But there’s also a downside to ambition. The downside is individuals can work to game the system for short-term gains or worse, lose sight of what they’re supposed to be doing in the name of blind self-interest.

I don’t know that this is what’s motivating Ford, but he has communicated no real rationale for his position other than he doesn’t want the status quo to change and he wants his shot at incumbency protection.

Ahh, more altruism.

It’s About Representing the People that are There Not Protecting Your Incumbency

The original idea about the Census, reapportionment, and redistricting was to ensure that states were getting the representation in the Federal government that their populations deserved. The process has always been political, so lets not fool ourselves.

But in addition it should be about the legislative body that results sharing common interests with the communities they represent. That’s the danger of packing, stacking, and gerrymandering; the people aren’t represented as well as they could be.

My inner optimist wants it to be about actually representing the people, which is one of the reasons I support single member districts. In fact, for the entirety of my time writing at this blog I have advocated for smaller, more direct representation in local government. I have argued that we should have more direct representation in Shelby County than we do in Nashville (we don’t by the way), and that districts should be a collection of neighborhoods rather than these behemoths that cover nearly one-quarter of the population of the County.

Regardless of your partisan leanings, this is something we all should want. Folks in Whitehaven have decidely different challenges facing their communities than those near Riverdale. Folks in Midtown have a different perspective than those in Germantown. Yet, each of these pairings fall into districts that include each other. Downtown is different from Raleigh/Frayser and Millington is different from Collierville. Again, those areas are paired for partisan considerations only, not actual governing from those communities and for those communities.

This is what should be one of the key considerations in the redistricting process. Right now, we have members who are more concerned with maintaining artificial partisan counts and ensuring their incumbency. Truth be told, if you’re doing your job, incumbency isn’t something you will have to worry about.

Making Better Government

If we want a better, more responsive legislative body in the Shelby County Commission, we should demand that the districts be smaller, and closer to the people. Its not about making districts that are easier to run for, its about representing the people the best way possible. Maybe some believe these huge three member districts are better because they ensure that someone is responsive if you get a deadbeat. Well, if you do get a deadbeat, other members of the body shouldn’t be put in the position of covering for him/her thus obscuring reality to the people they are tasked with representing. If they’re bad at their job, their bosses, the voters, should know so they don’t make the same mistake twice.

The Current Districts and Where Commissioners Live

It should also be about serving communities.

The map to the left shows the current districts and where the members live. Note, the areas where there isn’t a member for miles.

Collierville, Raleigh/Frayser, the Summer Corridor, Bartlett, the list goes on.

Single member districts would give these communities a better chance of having more direct representation in County government.

I keep hearing that no one cares about this stuff, but if you’re irritated with the way the County Commission, or the City Council for that matter, deals with issues… If you feel that your area is getting the shaft, if you wish you were represented by someone within a 4 mile radius, maybe you should consider advocating for single member districts.

I don’t know many people who think the Commission is consistently working in the best interests of the County. Part of that has to do with the way the districts are drawn, because that affects who runs and how close to you they live. The other part, well that’s up to the voters. But we’ll never get there if we just decide to tune out and let whatever is going to happen happen.

You have a voice outside of the ballot box. If you think the current system stinks, I think its time you used it. You can find your County Commissioners here or just email them all at once using this link.

Also, post about this on your Facebook page, and make sure to tag them in your post. Maybe they’ll get the message.