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.

Oct 14 2011

Collateral Damage

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke, State Politics

This car changed my life

Before I go on, I want to say it was wrong of me to lump in both the Senate and House Caucuses in my criticism of House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner. Seeing as how he’s chair and all, it might lead one to think that he’s speaking for the caucus. That mistake wouldn’t have been made had it been any other Democratic member of the House Caucus. So, just lump everything that I said here on Mike Turner. The Caucuses were collateral damage.

Now, on another note, I’ve been told by a few that I flew off the handle with that post. Maybe, maybe not. But I’ll tell you something, I don’t have any patience for drunk drivers and I have even less for people that make excuses or minimize the impact of their actions. I know that impact all too well.

It was 1984 and I was 12 years old. My parents, brother and I were up in Northwest Arkansas. It was a vacation of sorts, mixed with a job interview. Closest thing we’d had to a real vacation other than weekend camping trips and a quick trip to the World’s Fair in Knoxville.

We were in this small town of about 2500 people. Not much to do, but we saw a bowling alley on the way in, and decided to go do that (dad was on a league, and I wanted to be on one too).

We got there and it was closed. So we decided to head back and stop by the Wal-Mart on the way to the hotel to get something to keep us occupied. It was about 7pm.

We never made it to Wal-Mart.

About 300 feet shy of the driveway we were hit head on by a drunk driver. We were in a little Datsun 210. He was in a mid 1970’s Pontiac Gran Prix, like the one pictured above. It doesn’t take too much math to figure out who lost that battle.

The highway we were on had a posted speed limit of 40 MPH. A head on collision like that, at that speed very possibly could have killed us. Thankfully it didn’t. It did, however, take more than an hour for the emergency personnel to get my dad out of the car. The impact had crammed the whole front end, engine and everything, on his legs. He was pinned in.

I don’t think they even had “jaws of life” in that little town. If I remember correctly, they had to have them brought in from a town 15 miles away. Dad had all kinds of broken bones. Luckily, neither I, nor my brother was hurt. Adding insult to injury, neither was the driver of the other vehicle.

It took a couple of years of physical therapy for dad to be able to walk right again. He still has a little limp from the broken ankle.

Even though I wasn’t hurt any worse than a few bumps and bruises, and several days of being so sore I couldn’t move, this event changed my life. This wasn’t this guys first DUI. Chances are it wasn’t his last.

The reality is, this probably wasn’t Curry Todd’s first time behind the wheel drunk either. It was the first time he got caught. Studies suggest drunk drivers get behind around 100 times before getting caught. Anything that minimizes this is a disservice to society.

It hurts my soul to say I agree with Ron Ramsey, but I do. Throw the book at him. I don’t have any pity for Curry Todd. He made a choice, a really bad choice, and he’ll have to live with the consequences. But don’t call it a mistake. That sounds way to accidental to me. This was no accident.

I don’t usually do these emotional outbursts. I like to try to be the rational one.

This pissed me off to my core, and my experience with drunk drivers is why.

So there you have it. Make your own assessment. But don’t make excuses or minimize the actions of people who get behind the wheel stumbling drunk. I don’t have time or patience for that, friend or foe. That Curry Todd is one of the guys thats going to redistrict us into the stone age just makes it that much worse all the way around.

Oct 13 2011


Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Mike Turner and Curry Todd

This isn’t what I wanted to write about today. In fact, this isn’t what I want to write about any day.

But after seeing the manner in which this issue has been handled, I’ve got to say something.

Of course, everyone has heard about the arrest of TN State Rep. Curry Todd – Collierville for driving drunk, and with a loaded pistol to boot. I don’t really have much to say about this situation except that I’m glad that no one was physically injured and that my thoughts and prayers are with his family, who are certainly suffering as a result of his irresponsible actions.

This is a story dripping with irony. Sponsor of “Guns in Bars” caught drunk with loaded gun. I mean, you couldn’t make up a better story line. Some say you shouldn’t kick a man while he’s down. That’s not what this is. This is pointing out hypocrisy.

The story, which I first saw online at 5:30am, received no official response from any Democratic institution until a 4:15pm press release by the TNDP. By then, national news outlets had picked up the story.

At 4:55pm the first statement from Todd hit the wires. The tenor of that statement should come as no surprise to anyone.

Then, this morning the Tennessean publishes an article about the political consequences of Todd’s actions. In it, House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner said this:

House GOP leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Todd has done a “good job” as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee and that he “certainly” hopes Todd can keep the post. Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, agreed.

“I think he’s one of the best chairmen we have up there,” said Turner, D-Old Hickory. “I’m not going to beat somebody up for making a mistake. I don’t think you’ll ever see him get in this situation again.”

What? This wasn’t a mistake, this was a choice. A massive life threatening choice. You would think that Turner, a fireman, would get that. Instead, he seems to be glossing it over as if he accidentally rear-ended someone while following too close, which would be a mistake.

This is one of many disappointments that I’ve had with both Democratic Caucuses. They both seem to be operating out of fear. Through that fear they have taken incumbency protection (the primary goal of the caucuses) to a new level. Now they’re protecting incumbents regardless of party. Good going guys.

I can’t wait for the next Republican scandal to break and see the response from the Caucus. Infidelity will be a “misunderstanding”, tax fraud will be “a mathematical error”, murder or maiming will be a “lapse in judgement”.

What is the appropriate response to what happened? Here’s a suggestion:

The (insert name of organization/leader here) gave the following statement regarding the arrest of Rep. Curry Todd on Drunk Driving and gun charges:

“As elected officials, we have a responsibility to lead by example. Curry Todd chose to drive while intoxicated and carry a loaded firearm last night. This is unacceptable behavior for anyone, particularly an individual elected to represent the people of Shelby County.”

“It is our hope that as Rep. Todd proceeds through the criminal court process that he is treated no differently than any other member of society accused of these crimes. If he is convicted, he should receive no preferential treatment or leniency. Holding public office cannot be a “Get out of jail free” card.”

“Regardless of the outcome, we hope Rep. Todd gets the treatment he needs to recover from this lapse in judgement. We also wish his family the best as they deal with the embarrassment of Rep. Todd’s irresponsibility.”

Is that perfect? No. I just came up with it in 5 minutes. Why didn’t I call for his removal from his chairmanship? That’s not my call to make, though it would seem like an appropriate response from a House GOP leadership.

What did Turner do? Make excuses. Hell, even Ron Ramsey is calling for “zero tolerance” for Todd, why can’t we?

At least the TNDP was a little closer, though the thought of a Democrat making demands on the Republican Speaker of the House is a little over the top, but at least they did something!

The point is, we shouldn’t be afraid of calling something what it is. This was irresponsible, careless, foolish, and two illegal acts. Ignoring that is irresponsible.

I’m only going to say this once… Either you’re fighting, or you’re fleeing. If you don’t have the stomach to fight anymore, maybe you should hang it up. We’ll never win as long as we allow the fear of something that “might” happen to paralyze us.

Edited to add:The TN Jobs Tour, which was recently held by the caucuses was a huge positive for them. I commend them for addressing an issue that the GOP still doesn’t have any idea what to do about. That doesn’t excuse this action, and the deafening silence by just about everyone but Mike Turner during the last session. Which is what makes this that much more perplexing.

Apr 06 2011

The “Anything But Jobs” Legislature

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, elections, State Politics

There’s been a whole lot of stupid coming out of Nashville this year, but based on what bills are flowing through the General Assembly, we’ve only seen the appetizer.

Rep. Debra Maggart (R) - Hendersonville

First on the list is Representative Debra Maggart. Following a line of Republican led disenfranchisement legislation, Maggart believes that your voter ID card, a document that has been used to identify voters for decades, is not enough. Nope, you have to have a photo ID no matter what.

Now, for a lot of us that doesn’t seem like a big deal. If you drive, you’ve got a picture ID, if you’re employed you probably have one too. But lots of people, whether you know it or not, don’t. For whatever reason, they don’t need one. Most of them are older, low-income, and minority voters. The act of going out to get a government issued photo id, where none has been required before, is an undue burden.

Further, there’s some question about the constitutionality of the bill. Similar efforts have been pushed in states like Georgia, Missouri and New Mexico, and all have been ruled unconstitutional.

The only way this bill would be constitutional is if there was a way for these individuals to get a free ID, if obtaining that ID was free of undue burdens (meaning additional locations and extended hours), and if there was substantial voter outreach (Source).

This, of course, presents two problems for the Republicans proposing these efforts. First of all, none of this is included in the bill and doing so would create a huge fiscal note, or additional cost to the state. Right now the fiscal note on this bill says not significant.

As Democratic House Caucus Chair, Mike Turner noted in this article the bill “amounts to a back door poll tax”.

Way to go. If this thing passes without some way to get free ID’s to people, it’ll end up in court.

Ahh, but the legislature is messin’ all up in that too.

This afternoon in the House Judiciary Subcommittee they’ll tackle the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, aka the Miscarriage of Justice Act of 2011.

Basically, all this bill will do is take away your right to sue if you’ve been wronged. Nothing big there right?

Here’s what one mother had to say about the bill.

Y’all, this is something even former Senator and Republican Fred Thompson is against.

So what does it do? It basically says that if you are the victim of some kind of malpractice you can’t file suit because you are no longer a “consumer”, you’ll have to go to the Attorney General’s office to get them to file suit. Good luck with that.

Oh yeah, if a Bernie Maddof wannabe takes all your money and runs, you’re screwed there too. Nice stuff.

All this goes back to what Republicans call “tort reform”, or what I would call the “Don’t Need No Accountability” movement. Because, as everyone knows if you don’t get caught you’ve done no wrong right?


And if the legislature takes away the ability for people to hold others that have harmed them accountable then no one is hurt right?


Last, but certainly not least, the legislature is ensuring Teachers have almost no workplace protections by introducing SB113 by Republican Jack Johnson of Franklin.

Rep. Maggart is sponsoring the House version of the bill, which moderates the stance somewhat, but Co-Governor Ron Ramsey isn’t budging. In fact, compromise is not an option as far as he’s concerned. Nope, teachers should have no right to work together to improve the working conditions that school boards invariably leave them in. They should just sit back and take it while they watch their salaries and benefits slip away.

That’s a sure fire way to attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession.

Earlier today, the TEA, which has been leading the fight against this bill, delivered a petition with the signatures of 9000 supporters. Hopefully legislators will take the hint, but I’m not counting on it. They’re hell bent on getting what they want whether the people of Tennessee want it or not.

As far as they’re concerned, they’ve got the numbers in the legislature and until they don’t they’re going to do everything they can to make sure their donors get what they want.

In the mean time, the unemployment rate in Tennessee stands at 10.2%.

Way to bring in jobs Republican Legislators.