In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry, of Massachusetts, signed a reapportionment plan to benefit his party in which one of the districts was so convoluted it was said to resemble a salamander. A clever newspaper editor said “make that a Gerrymander.” It’s been a gerrymander ever since.
Drawing districts for our state and federal representation has been the purview of the political party in control of the state Legislature for so long that, despite its often total disregard for the welfare of the voters, courts have been reluctant to interfere.
Indeed, no one makes any bones about the fact that the state legislative elections this fall are crucial because they will allow either the Republicans or the Democrats in the state Legislature to redraw the districts for the General Assembly—and for the U.S. House members from Tennessee in the next session.
Traditionally, the Legislature defers to the incumbent U.S. House members to draw their own districts, or at least to make sure they are okay with the end result. This time around I would like to suggest that the state Legislature do its job and redraw the districts for congressmen in a way that makes sense and makes it convenient for the voter. It’s a revolutionary idea, I know, but there are a few factors that might make a difference this time around.
The most egregious sin perpetrated on the voters is the 4th congressional district. It stretches from LaFollette, on the Kentucky line in Campbell County, to Lawrence County on the Alabama border above Florence. It doesn’t have a single television station, I think it has one daily newspaper down in Pulaski, and the radio stations are low-signal one-county operations, mostly. The residents of Middle and East Tennessee have little in common, little contact, and the only common problem is a lack of infrastructure and high unemployment. It has been represented by Republican Van Hilleary and now by Democrat Lincoln Davis.
The 3rd District has been represented by Zach Wamp. It used to go north and west from Chattanooga into the Sequatchie Valley. When the lines were last drawn, and Wamp was interested in running for governor, the district was changed to go up I-75 and form a J with the hook of the J surrounding the Knoxville media market. This puts Grainger County in the same congressional district as Hamilton County. So what do people in Chattanooga and Bean Station have in common except love for a good tomato?
Over in the 7th District, Congressman Marsha Blackburn (as she prefers to be called) represents Shelby County’s Memphis suburbs. Rural West Tennessee districts. Her home county is Brentwood, a bedroom community of Nashville. And Clarksville and Fort Campbell. Fort Campbell and Germantown? Brentwood and Walking Tall’s McNairy County? Really?
Congressman Jimmy Duncan’s district is fairly compact and logical, though it goes South to include McMinn and Monroe counties, and it might make more sense to trade them for counties in the Knoxville market like Jefferson, Union, and Grainger. I’m sure his office gets calls for help from Union and Grainger counties because he is so well known. I’m sure there are a lot of people in these counties who don’t realize, until they need help, that their congressman is in Chattanooga.
There have been three turnovers in congressional seats for sure. Congressmen John Tanner, Bart Gordon, and Wamp gave up their seats and will be replaced by rookies. Having fewer long-term incumbents on hand gives the Legislature an opportunity to take a hard look at the districts.
In modern day America, congressional districts ought to surround major media markets and/or trade centers. The Tri-Cities are in the 1st, along with Morristown and its trade area.
The Knoxville media market is a major metropolitan area that includes contiguous counties. Remember Nine Counties One Vision? The One Vision area has four congressmen.
The state Legislature will spend the majority of its energy on redrawing its own districts for maximum political advantage. But how about this time around you spend some time considering media markets, common interests, and voter convenience in drawing lines for our congressional delegation?