Why It Is the Way It Is

Memphis City Council via their Facebook page
The Memphis City Council’s districting system is unlike any other. Sure, other places have single member districts and more “at large” seats, Nashville comes to mind for instance, but few cities that faced the legal challenges that ultimately led to our current arrangement were given the latitude to basically write their own deal.

In 1988, the Dallas City Council’s districting plan was challenged. They tried to propose a mixed system featuring some single member districts and some at large districts, a Federal Judge ruled that such a plan would ultimately not serve the interest of proportionality. The city was ordered to adopt single member districts.

More recently, in Irving, TX a 2007 suit led to the changing of the districting system in a city whose hispanic population had been continuously disenfranchised for years.

And that’s the way it was in Memphis until 1991. African-Americans, while a large percentage of the population, only held 3 of the 13 seats on the City Council until that election. The difference, the end of run-offs in “at large” seats as a result of a lawsuit challenging the city’s districts.

In 1995, the City Council came up with a plan (on a 9-4 vote with Myron Lowery and Janet Hooks joining the majority), that was approved by Judge Jerome Turner as satisfactory to ensure adequate representation for African-Americans on the City Council. The measure passed, even though it was largely not understood, and as a result of the 1995 elections, the City Council, for the first time ever, became a majority minority body that reflected the demographics of a changing city.

Since that time, even though the City is now 70% African-American, this notion that the Consent Decree demanded a 7-6 split has been maintained even though it ultimately disenfranchises the African-American majority by denying them the 2 seats on the council that single member districts would likely return.

How does this happen? The super districts skew the math by artificially designating 3 members to a “white” district that’s really only 48% white. That would be “Super District” 9. By contrast, “Super District” 8 is over 85% African-American.

Now, take a look at this map from Polar Donkey:

via Polar Donkey
The stars are where the members of the City Council live. Notice there are 4 members in district 5, 3 in district 7 (if you count former Councilwoman Ware), 2 in district 3 meaning that 69% of all the votes on the City Council are concentrated in just 43% of the city.

Now look, I’m not suggesting that members who represent district 9 but live in 5 don’t take calls from their constituents in other areas. However, the whole purpose of districts is for people to have a connection to them, and by having these districts that represent over 323,000 people and their representatives concentrated in one area of town it makes it harder for a member to truly understand the issues faced by folks who live outside of the Poplar corridor. That’s just reality. And of course, the same can be said of those who represent District 8, even though they are marginally more dispersed.

The real issue here is that this is the system we have, but not the system we have to have. I’ve made no secret about my disdain for this system. I haven’t liked it for years. Because our government is “by the people” we could change it if we wanted to, I just don’t think that many folks really think about this stuff enough to get to the “what change might look like” part of the discussion. Until that happens, it is what it is.

But the other reality is that the 7-6 split on the council is artificially maintained by this districting system, and it doesn’t take someone with a great grasp of math to figure it out. By stacking district 8 with such a huge percentage of the African American population, this system actually creates an impossible scenario for a majority of the population to actually receive proportional representation on the City Council, and no matter what anyone says, they can’t produce the math to show anything different.

Memphis suffers from a whole lot of problems, one of which is collective action. I hear a lot of noise in this city from folks who think things ought to be different, but I don’t see a lot of action. When I go to the City Council or the County Commission meetings the number of people in attendance is usually very small. There are more members of the administration there than members or regular citizens. That doesn’t bode well for a city with the kind of wide ranging challenges we have.

We have to demand better from everyone, and that includes people that might look like you no matter what you look like. Until we do that, we’ll get what we get. What we’re getting is a Council that, as a body, is reacting rather than leading. There are several examples of members who simply lack the curiosity needed to ask questions that could cause everyone, from the administration to other members, to think differently about how to arrive at solutions.

I get that it takes 7 members to get anything done, and I think that there are several member that possess these qualities…but there aren’t 7. Until there are, we’re stuck in the same mess we’ve been stuck in for longer than I’ve lived here.

In the end, it is the way it is because we allow it to be, either through inaction, of lack of information or just not giving a damn. If we don’t start thinking and talking about ways to change it, many of the issues facing this City will never be resolved…and that’s really sad to me.

No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.

8 thoughts

  1. What we need is a council person who is willing to compassionately call his/her colleagues out on the carpet when they fail to demonstrate due diligence in representing their constituents’ interests and isn’t afraid to not be popular with everyone all the time.

  2. Steve,
    Long before I was on the Shelby County Commission and was the Juvenile Court Clerk, I was the City Councilman for district 7 (1989 – 1994). In 1994, the plaintiffs in the at-large lawsuit challenging the fact that 6 of the 13 council members were elected at large, and the City Council BOTH chose me to develop a plan for redistricting of the City Council prior to the 1995 elections. I DEVELOPED A 13 MEMBER SINGLE DISTRICT PLAN. The plaintiffs and the Judge were ready to accept it but the At-Large City Council members balked because they did not want to go from representing all the city to representing just 1/13th. It is THE TRUTH that ALL of the at-large councilmen EXCEPT K T WHALUM, Sr. who along with M Lowery were the only 2 Black at-large councilmembers, AND PAT VANDERSCHAFF, who indicated she would vote for the 13 member district plan as the only white vote if all the Blacks were for it, fought bitterly against it. But of course with Myron leading the way, all of the Blacks were not for it. In fact the NAACP took the position that with the population shift, if we left the at large situation in place it would only be a few elections before Blacks would win all the at-large seats and have 10 seats on the Council out of 13. And so in the end, Mary Rose McCormick (District 2) and Jack Sammons (District 5) joined with the 4 white At-Large Councilmembers and Myron and Janet to support the Super District Plan as a compromise that as you correctly stated was supposed to institutionalize a 7/6 Black majority on the Council for the forseeable future. As I said then, single member districts brings government closest to the people. And single member districts are fairer and more equitable for they are smaller and as demographics of a district changes, so too does the opportunity for the new majority to elect one of its own unlike Super Districts which have to wait for the demographics of half of the City to change. If you want more information on this process, I will be happy to provide it.
    What is interesting to me is that the more things change in this community, the more they stay the same. Discussions that we had and issues that were debated 15 – 20 years ago – consolidation, redistricting, privatizing sanitation, payroll tax, school consolidation are all back again, AS IF THEY WERE NEVER DISCUSSED NOR INVESTIGATED BEFORE. I am reminded of the axiom that “a people who fail to remember its history is doomed to repeat it”. Let’s hope we can get off this merry go round soon, for all our sakes so that we can move forward. Now would be a good time to implement single member districts.

    PS. Judge Otis Higgs, Randy Wade, and Rev Melvin Wade, all Plaintiffs, will validate my information.

    1. Shep,

      Thanks for the inside baseball on that. I didn’t live here at the time this all went down. My information is based on press clippings that I’ve researched over the past several years. What you state is the long detail on how those press reports play out, so I don’t need any more confirmation on that.

      We do keep doing the same things over and over again without actually getting anything done, and that’s frustrating. I’ve seen it just in my 7 years in this city. There are lots of reasons for this, some of which would require more time than I have to devote here right now, but at the end of the day, we all have to become engaged and start thinking differently to come to a different result. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Steve Ross

  3. For the most part, money dictates power.

    However, Steve, you should list you specific ideas to see if they can get any traction. Your top 25? I am positive, you and I can agree on most of them.

    1. Tom,

      I’m working on them, though it’s more of a top 10 list. Accountability and transparency are 1 and 2, quality of life for all Memphians is 3 (that includes a lot of things like crime, schools, and neighborhoods). Ultimately, I want a group of people to come together with a consistent vision for this city and work to put it into action. That means getting elected and working intentionally to make that vision a reality.

      It’s a heavy lift, but it’s something we have to do if we want to make Memphis a more appealing place to live, work, raise a family and retire.

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