NASHVILLE (AP) — Republican plans for Tennessee legislative redistricting released Wednesday would draw five black House members into three seats and place the top Senate Democrat into the same district as a GOP incumbent.
The House plan was roundly criticized by Democrats, but Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville stressed that the proposal would keep the same number of districts where minorities make up a majority of the population at 13 of the chamber's 99 seats.
"We've gone out of our way to be as fair as possible," Harwell told reporters after the plans were unveiled in a crowded committee hearing room. "I can't control the demographics of this state."
The once-a-decade redistricting plan reflects population changes in the 2010 Census and shifting political trends. Republicans hold wide majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Republican leaders have said they want the redistricting measure to be among the first bills considered when the legislative session begins next week.
The Senate Republican plan released later in the day on the Legislature's website would place Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010, into the same district as Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.
Kyle did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson said his colleagues were still digesting the maps they had seen for the first time Wednesday.
The Senate plan would also draw freshmen Sens. Jim Summerville of Dickson and Kerry Roberts of Springfield into the same district.
The House GOP plan would create six new districts with no current incumbent, including one in Nashville where African-Americans and Hispanics would combine to make up a majority.
The black Democrats placed into the same districts would be Reps. Joanne Favors and Tommie Brown in Chattanooga, and Barbara Cooper and G.A. Hardaway in Memphis. Also in Memphis, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who is black, would be placed into the same district with Rep. Jeanne Richardson, who is white.
"Under their plan, the best-case scenario is we're going to lose at least two African-American representatives in Tennessee in a year where African-American population has grown," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.
According to the U.S. Census, Tennessee's black population grew by nearly 127,000 between 2000 and 2010, increasing the African-American portion of the state's population from 16.4 percent to 16.7 percent.
Harwell, the House speaker, disagreed with Turner's argument.
"It may mean a change in who is representing that district," Harwell told reporters after the plans were unveiled in a crowded committee room. "But there will still be the same number of minority districts in the state of Tennessee."
The House plan would also draw into the same seat two white Democrats from Nashville, Reps. Eric Stewart and Sherry Jones. Also drawn into the same district were Reps. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, and Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; and Reps. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, and Jim Cobb, R-Spring City.
Five new seats would be located within Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Rutherford and Williamson counties. A sixth would be made up of all of Marshall and parts of Lincoln, Franklin and Marion counties.