JACKSON – Depending on one’s political perspective, the lion’s share of the credit or blame for the lack of a legislative redistricting plan rests with Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.
There’s agreement across political lines about that.
Bryant, considered the frontrunner in this year’s election to succeed the term-limited Haley Barbour as governor, displayed in both his words and deeds that it would not be business as usual in legislative redistricting.
Most significantly, as leader of the Senate, he rejected the time-honored practice of each chamber rubber-stamping the other house’s plan for redrawing its lines. Instead, he pushed first for his own plan and eventually for negotiations with the House, which turned him down.
Because the Legislature ended its session without approving a redistricting plan, the issue is now pending before the federal courts. The outcome could determine which party controls both the House and Senate after this year’s elections.
It also could affect how Bryant’s political future might play out, especially if he becomes the next governor.
More than a year ago, Bryant was proclaiming that the Republican-led Senate, over which he presides, would not sign off on any plan to redraw the 122 House seats that was not fair to Republicans.
He referred to the rubber-stamping practice as an “antiquated tradition that was designed to keep the powerful in power.”
Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said that tradition made sense when one party – the Democrats – controlled both chambers, but with the Republicans now in charge of the Senate, it no longer works.
House Apportionment and Elections Chair Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said Bryant’s goal is not a plan fair to Republicans, but one that would force the Democrat-led House to relinquish power to the GOP.
The Republicans offered a plan that would have collapsed the districts of two Democratic House members while the Democrats passed a House plan that protected the incumbent Republicans, Reynolds said.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said that ever since the Legislature began redrawing the districts to adhere to population shifts reflected by the decennial census, it proceeded “with one overriding tradition in mind – that neither house will interfere with the districts of the other house.”
But this year, thanks primarily to Bryant, was different.
In the past, redistricting plans have been handled by the Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee and the Elections committees of both chambers. Bryant took the additional step of assigning the bill to the Rules Committee, where his allies control the votes.
With their backing, Bryant could be assured of determining when redistricting plans would come before the full Senate for a vote.
In addition, Bryant asked the Senate’s 27 Republicans to sign a pledge that they would vote to send the redistricting plans to negotiations with the House instead of approving the plans and ending the contentious process.
Bryant said there was nothing sinister in his typed “pledge” sheet, which contained lines for the 27 Republicans to sign.
He said he kept hearing that members were changing their minds on whether they would vote to go to conference or approve the plan; thus, he asked members to sign the pledge “so I don’t have to keep bugging you.”
In the end, only three Republicans did not sign – Tommy Gollott of Biloxi, Nolan Mettetal of Sardis and Tommy Moffatt of Gautier – but they voted with the Republican majority to send the proposals to conference for additional negotiations.
But McCoy, citing the tradition of each chamber handling its own redistricting, would not appoint conferees to negotiate with the Senate.
“The Senate will not sit at a table and tell us how to draw our districts,” said Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton.
Bryant also fought to have more input in his own chamber’s plan.
He appointed Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, to handle the Senate redistricting effort. But when Burton developed a plan that Bryant said was not as favorable to Republicans as he wanted, the lieutenant governor offered his own proposal.
That plan was rejected in favor of the Burton plan.
Jackson attorney Andy Taggart, former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice and a well-known Republican Party strategist, had called the Burton plan good for Republicans because it created two new districts that Republicans should win and “a number of incumbent Republicans serve districts that would be made stronger under the Burton plan.”
Bryant also expressed strong opinions during the redistricting fight.
He often complained that the state was constrained in its redistricting efforts by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was designed to protect minority voting rights and was extended for another 25 years with the approval of Republican President George W. Bush.
Bryant complained that then-President Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act to punish Southern states and Arizona because their voters supported Barry Goldwater over him in the 1964 election.
Arizona was not covered by the Voting Rights Act until Congress changed it in 1975 – long after Johnson left office. The Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure suffrage for African-Americans who were denied that right throughout the South.
Bryant also stirred controversy when, speaking in private to a group of Republican senators, he brought up the name of 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edith Jones, who was appointed to the judiciary by President Ronald Reagan during Barbour’s stint as an adviser in the White House.
Jones will name members of a three-judge federal panel to decide how Mississippi legislative elections will be held later this year since the Legislature was unable to draw new districts.
McCoy sent Bryant a letter asked whether he was “implying that the chief judge likely would appoint a judge favorable to Republican interests.”
Bryant said he was merely making a point to Republicans who were worried after Judge Carlton Reeves, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, was assigned to the case. Reeves has since stepped aside.
“Everybody here is speculating about what judge may be where, that’s all I was doing,” Bryant said.
At this point, it’s hard to measure the lasting impact of the redistricting fight on Bryant’s political future. But his active role in the process has created hard feelings among many Democratic legislators he might need to work with if elected governor.
“We just need to fix it so he can run both houses,” McCoy quipped recently. “He wants to be the most powerful politician in the state. Governor Barbour had better look out.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal