Old Days Return? Cities Onces Again Under the Thumb of Rural, Suburban Legislators

Here we go again?

Decades ago when many Tennesseans left the farm to move to the major cities, it left sparsely populated rural legislative districts intact and city districts did not grow. City residents were under-represented and rural legislators remained in control of state government.

It took the courts to order legislative districts be redrawn and provide the cities with fair representation. It broke up the rural control of state government. There arose a coalition of rural Democrats and urban Democrats to take control of the Legislature. Since many urban Democrats were black, it also provided the state's largest minority a modicum of political power.

Over time, the children of the city dwellers moved to the suburbs or back to rural counties.

The Republican takeover of the Legislature has put suburban and rural legislators in almost absolute control. Rural districts in West Tennessee have gone from Democratic to Republican. Democratic House members have been marginalized and about half of those that remain are urban black members.

Thus we find ourselves back to the days when rural and suburban white legislators are back in control of the Legislature and many of our major cities have very little clout. Suburban legislators are dictating policy from schools to employment for large metropolitan areas.

The black caucus finds itself marginalized.

The Tennessee Municipal League, which lobbies for city interests, is finding it tough sledding these days.

The Republican takeover has brought a lot of changes to state government, but none more so than the shift of political power from the cities to more rural areas. There are places like suburban Williamson County (Franklin) where legislators are dictating to Nashville metro government, despite Davidson County being much more heavily populated. Suburbs like Germantown over in Shelby County have more political clout than Memphis, the largest city in the state.

In past decades, Knox County's City County Building might have been predominately Republican, but local officeholders knew that if they really needed a bill they had to call on Democratic House members Joe Armstrong or Harry Tindell. Both were powerful committee chairs and had the ear of the leadership. That's not the case anymore. Tindell retired and has been replaced by first-term member Gloria Johnson. Armstrong is still respected by his colleagues and retains his institutional knowledge. He's been in the House since 1988. But he doesn't have the power he once had as part of the House leadership.

Republican House members Ryan Haynes, Bill Dunn, and Harry Brooks, who are committee chairs, are usually called on to deliver local legislation these days.

Current conditions are unlike the old days in that districts are not unfairly drawn. It is a political problem that is unlikely to be resolved unless major cities elect more Republicans or Democrats start to win in the suburbs or win back traditionally Democratic rural counties in West and Middle Tennessee.

That could take a generation.

It is perhaps ironic that the mayors of the state's four largest cities at present are Democrats. These mayors will have to work with suburban Republicans to advance any agenda that requires legislation. Or, to defeat legislation that restricts their ability to govern. They will have to take to the Bully Pulpit.

If the public supports the mayors' agendas, perhaps they can convince Republicans to leave local governing to the locals. They might also lay on a group of high-powered lobbyists to supplement the TML effort to stop pernicious (in the eyes of city government) bills. It's worked for the farmers, the bankers, the health-care industry, and the liquor industry for lo these many years.

Another irony is that current Gov. Bill Haslam is a former mayor, but he seems intent on exerting state control over local school systems that are under-performing. His ambitious education reforms are not going to be welcomed in Memphis or Nashville for sure. Mayors and city residents once again, regardless of their populations, find themselves under the sway of small town, suburban, and rural legislators.