Tennessee Senate Republicans approve political redistricting plans

·6 min read

Jan. 21—NASHVILLE — The Republican-controlled Tennessee Senate has approved political redistricting plans for the state's nine congressional seats and 33 state Senate districts.

The Senate's green light set up final floor action in the GOP-led House next week on those maps as well as the House's own redistricting plan for its members.

Senate Republicans pushed both the congressional and Senate plans through on partisan 26-5 votes on Thursday.

Democrats again denounced the congressional and state Senate maps, which among other things break up the staunchly Democratic Nashville-centered 5th Congressional District, now held by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville. The new congressional map splits the district between Nashville and a newly reconfigured 5th, which includes portions of Williamson and Maury counties, and the 6th and 7th Congressional districts, which are held by Republican U.S. Reps. John Rose, of Cookeville, and Mark Green, of Ashland City.

The 6th and 7th districts are packed with GOP rural and suburban voters.

Republicans hope the move will boost the party's congressional seats in Tennessee from seven to eight. Democrats, however, warned GOP leaders it will trigger a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit because it splinters Black voters' influence in the 5th District.

Defending the congressional map as "fair and legal," Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said Shelby County, the state's most populous county, which is Democratic, has long been split.

"We feel like the maps are legal and defensible both from a statutory and constitutional standpoint," Johnson said.

Democrats point out that Shelby County is split because it is larger than a single congressional district.

"I can't imagine that some portion of this doesn't go to court," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, later told reporters. "You have such a disregard for fairness, for long-standing laws and traditions, and you have such a kind of clear drawing of lines so close to racial communities in a way that escapes accident."

Tennessee Democratic Party officials put Republicans on notice that they can expect their efforts to solidify "unchecked power" over the next decade to land in federal court.

"These maps dilute minority voting power & rip apart communities," the Democratic Party said on social media. "We will be suing."

Congressional, state Senate and state House seats are changing throughout most of Tennessee due to explosive population growth in Middle Tennessee, described by one lawmaker as the "great sucking" that has forced districts to move toward Nashville.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told reporters on the chamber floor Thursday he expects the Senate-passed congressional map will clear the House as approved by senators.

"You know, three congressmen is better than one. That's our opinion," Sexton said of the plan dividing Nashville among three congressional districts. "We followed the Voting Rights Act, we upheld that and the [state attorney general] feels like that we've done everything constitutional and to uphold the Voting Rights Act. So we feel comfortable where we are."

BRADLEY UNITED

One by-product is that U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Sherwood, who represents the sprawling 4th Congressional District, is being moved out of his portion of Bradley County in Southeast Tennessee. The move was spurred by soaring population growth in Rutherford County in the western end of DesJarlais' district.

It reunites all of Bradley for the first time in a decade, placing the entire county in the Chattanooga-centered 3rd Congressional District held by U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah.

"Bradley County is whole again," Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, a former state House representative, said to the Times Free Press on Thursday as he arrived in Nashville to attend a Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations meeting.

Fleischmann, Brooks pointed out, "happens to be the most powerful Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. So yes, it's great for Bradley County. And of course, Chuck has been great the entire time he's been there [in Washington] and has always been a fan of Cleveland. And now he's back as the congressman of Cleveland, so we're really grateful."

SENATE REDISTRICTING

While pushing congressional redistricting as hard as they could to eke out GOP gains come November, Senate Republicans were less ambitious on their own map.

But there are changes with the plan moving the Senate's 10th District, held by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, out of the southern portion of Bradley County while also transferring some into the 11th District, held by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. The Senate plan then extends Gardenhire's district into reliably Republican Marion, Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties.

Earlier this week, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, questioned Johnson, the Senate majority leader, on that move.

"When we look at a Hamilton County and the city of Chattanooga, District 10 and 11 places the Black population in Chattanooga into two separate districts," Gilmore told Johnson. "Was there any consideration in keeping Hamilton's African American population whole?"

Johnson replied, "The answer to your question is all those considerations were considered."

But he said Middle Tennessee's growth was pulling everything toward Nashville, and the move was necessary.

The large presence of Black voters from Chattanooga has made District 10 contests competitive. In 2020, Chattanooga Assistant Police Chief Glenn Scruggs, a Black Democrat, won the county, but Gardenhire, who is white, carried the district with the help of mostly white Bradley County Republicans.

Watson said in a Times Free Press interview outside the Senate chamber he believes the Senate has drawn the maps "fairly and legally.

"And I think as [Johnson] pointed out, the population shift to Middle Tennessee pulled my district south and a little west because everything's going west," Watson said. "And as you see, Senate District 10 had to move west. ... So I think it's an appropriate change to my district.

"I'm going to be gaining a lot of new voters. I think I'm going to continue to represent my district in Hamilton County as I've done the whole time I've been here, to the best of my ability. I don't make racial distinctions on people. Whomever they are, they have the right to have their voice heard here. They'll agree with me on some things, they'll disagree with me on some things."

Watson said that's been the case in his current district, which includes some traditionally Black precincts, and the district he represented before 2010.

"And I think that'll be true of my district going forward," Watson added. "My job is to do the best I can to represent the voices of the people I'm elected to represent."

NO HARD FEELINGS

Gardenhire downplayed Gilmore's remarks, telling the Times Free Press in an interview outside the Senate chamber that "Sen. Gilmore's job was to carry the banner for the Democrat Party and to raise as many objections, whether they were correct or incorrect.

"We recognized that and no hard feelings for her bringing that up. But the facts of the matter are that Sen. Watson already had a great number of African-American precincts in his district to start with — East Chattanooga up through Murray Hills, Lake Hills and Bonny Oaks and that area. So he represented those folks well, and he's recently been involved in helping Rep. [Yusuf] Hakeem with the state park up there, Booker T. Washington."

Gardenhire said Watson's "always gone out of his way to represent and help whoever is in the community who needs something done."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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