Profiles in Gerrymandering

How did the 17th District map get so convoluted that it stretches from Sequoyah Hills through South Knox and into Jefferson County?

When Sequoyah Hills voters work their way down the ballot to the line marked 17th District House of Representatives, they'll find Frank Niceley from Strawberry Plains and David Seal from Dandridge. This means they get to choose between a couple of guys from Jefferson County to represent them in Nashville and make decisions about their schools, roads, hospitals, and taxes.

Do they wonder about what rural Jefferson County has in common with densely populated West Knoxville suburbs from Cherokee Boulevard out to Rocky Hill?

And do they wonder how their district mutated from a sensible unit comprising South and near-West Knoxville into a gerrymandered oddity that connects the eastern half of Jefferson County with West Knoxville by way of a skinny line that snakes through the southernmost side of South Knox County? Do they think that whoever did this had their best interests at heart?

If they ask around, they'll find the answers submerged in a murky mess of self-interest and turf protection. Down at the bottom of the stew they'll find a fact that they might already suspect: Their district—and its former representative, Jamie Woodson—got shafted. The reason why depends on who's being asked.

Whatever it was, it was unintentional, says 13th District Rep. Harry Tindell, a Democrat who was involved in the 2002 legislative redistricting—a constitutionally mandated exercise that is repeated every 10 years when new U.S. Census data is released. It was this process that morphed the 17th District, represented by the former Jamie Hagood (whose name has changed since her marriage to Bill Woodson) into a two-county entity.

"The goal was not to get Jamie," Tindell says. "What happened in 2002 was the result of having no other options. Jamie was never targeted for political reasons—we just couldn't get to Bill Dunn." (Dunn is an outspoken ultra-conservative from Fountain City with friends who have run against Tindell a time or two).

Tim Burchett, who is Woodson's colleague in the state Senate, doesn't think the rezoning was all that innocent. He says it had a lot to do with former Senator Ben Atchley's announcement that he wasn't going to seek re-election when his term expired in 2004.

"I heard some of the snide remarks about her," Burchett says. "I thought [the redistricting] was in anticipation of her running for Senate, and meant to stop it. ‘We'll see how she does now,' that kind of thing. I was at a veteran's event and they introduced the guy running against her, and not her…. I thought it was odd they'd introduce a guy running for office at something like that."

Woodson, who won Atchley's former Senate seat in 2004, is somewhat circumspect about discussing the so-called "Get Rid of Jamie Hagood" redistricting of 2002.

"That would be for others to say," she says. "But what I can say is that it went from a very tight district to being 75 percent of a new county with a literal line down the Sevier County line in south Knox County connecting it to West Knoxville. It wasn't a road or a river bed, it was a line… there were a lot of rumors, a lot of guesses about what was going on, and an elected official told me that there were a lot of very large hogs at the trough and I was but a small pig."

By 2002, Ben Atchley, the senior member of the Knox County legislative delegation, had announced that he did not plan to seek re-election in 2004. A bevy of ambitious Republicans, including Woodson, was interested in succeeding him. (Democrats pretty much need not apply.)

First elected straight out of law school in 1998 when she was 26, Woodson was the youngest and most junior of the contenders, but she was considered a rising star whose political savvy belied her years. Finding a way to help her lose her House seat in 2002 could make it tough for her to run for the Senate in 2004. Burchett was not the only person who heard the talk.

Legislative redistricting is a time-honored way of doling out punishments and rewards. Democrats control the state House, and redrawing the 99 House districts starts in West Tennessee where the most powerful Democrats reside. There is a rigid pecking order, and Democrats pick first.

Inner-city districts like Joe Armstrong's 15th and Tindell's 13th, the populations of which have shrunk, must expand to pick up the requisite numbers. Districts where populations have grown—like Parkey Strader's 14th in west Knox County—must shrink to give some up. Combining counties into single districts is avoided when possible, although plunking two representatives into a single district is a tried-and-true form of political payback.

Tindell, who has served in the House for 18 years, says that if his party had been out to get anybody, it would have been Bill Dunn, who had been in office since 1994 and was making a name for himself as a conservative ideologue who didn't mind mixing it up with the opposing party.

"The first thing that happens in redistricting, because the core districts in the city generally have shrunk, is the city districts have to get bigger," Tindell says. "Joe and I pick first, and each time, we have had to expand our districts. We're in a situation where we're taking from Harry [Brooks], Stacey [Campfield], and Jamie's districts—we're pushing them out, so their districts gobble up other areas.

"In terms of the players, Jamie was the junior person, and seniority plays a big part in who gets what. Bill Dunn was more militant. He would have been the target to eliminate at the time, but he was protected by Jim Boyer's district (the 19th, now represented by Harry Brooks), which is right in the middle.

"We could not create a third Democratic district in Knox County because there just aren't enough Democrats. We had to do some combining. And in order to get to Dunn's district, you would have had to mess up Boyer's district. What ended up happening was that Boyer, who was the GOP caucus chair, had to sacrifice some geography but not a lot of people in order to accomplish the finger through South Knox County into Sequoyah Hills."

If the GOP ever takes over the House—something Republicans think would have already happened if the Democrats didn't exercise iron-fisted control over redistricting—Tindell says the payback could be severe:

"There's a high likelihood they'd put both Joe and me into Harry Brooks' (highly Republican) district."

Not surprisingly, Dunn remembers things a little differently.

"The original plan was to put a lot of Republicans together in the same district so they'd have to run against each other," Dunn says. "They had put me in Jim Boyer's district, and obviously the Republicans didn't like the Democrats doing this, so the party passed a resolution: Any Republicans voting for this redistricting plan would find themselves running against a Republican in the primary. That made the RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] kind of nervous."

At that point, the Republicans got a delegation together, went to meet with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and told him that they wanted the districts "decoupled." Surprisingly, Naifeh relented in all but one upper East Tennessee district. Dunn says he objected to a second plan that included his house by way of a little "finger." "I said, ‘This isn't right,' and got it changed," he says.

Harry Brooks, who succeeded Boyer in the 19th District, has served since 2004 and lives with what his predecessors wrought, which is a huge Republican district that curves around like a crescent moon from the east end of Powell and Heiskell around the core of Halls and eastward to include Gibbs, Corryton, Ritta, Carter, Thorn Grove, and most of the rest of east Knox County, except for a tiny precinct where Joe Armstrong's parents live. Then it swoops across the Holston River into the city portion of south Knox County. He says it takes about 45 minutes to travel from one end of the district to the other.

"And that's when traffic is good."

Ray Hill, who served the 17th District from 1990 to '92, observes that South Knoxville "is carved up like a Christmas turkey" between Niceley, Brooks, and Armstrong. "We're the only quadrant of the county that doesn't have a member of our community serving us in Nashville as a representative or a senator," Hill says.

If there was a plan to knock out Jamie Woodson, it failed. She ran for re-election in 2002 and beat a popular Jefferson County High School football coach. In 2004, she ran for Atchley's former Senate seat and won overwhelmingly. She is considered a potential future candidate for governor or Congress, and her colleagues consider her the embodiment of Nietzsche's theory that whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. "We made her a superstar," says Harry Tindell, who counts himself among Woodson's admirers.

Woodson says she took lemons and made lemonade, but she's not happy that her former constituents are stuck with those outrageous district lines.

"It disenfranchises the citizens of the district," she says. "You can't look at that map with a straight face and say it makes sense. I worked hard to make sure that from Chestnut Hill to Rocky Hill, there wasn't a disenfranchised voter. If there was a Civitan meeting, I wanted to be there. If there was a Veteran's Day meeting, I wanted to be there. I put 125,000 miles on my truck in one year, 125,000 the next year, serving the folks who had been slighted by party politics."