Redistricting court action could aid Democrats in Senate

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – If the House Republicans’ position on redistricting prevails in the courts, the outcome could lead to a more Democratic Senate.
That result would come from the loss of a Senate seat in the Delta currently held by a Republican.
The truth is, no one is sure what will happen to legislative redistricting in the courts. And legislators still could reach a compromise in the last two weeks of the session.
At this point, though, legislators appear to be at a stalemate on the contentious issue of redrawing the 52 Senate and 122 House districts. Each chamber must approve the other’s plan, and that’s where the process is stuck.
If no compromise is reached, some believe the courts will order legislative elections to be held later this year under the current districts with the instructions for the newly elected House and Senate to try again to reach agreement and run again in 2012 under new districts.
Others believe a federal judge, seeing the dramatic levels of malapportionment of the current districts, will develop a plan under which legislators will run later this year.
If the courts do opt to draw plans, House Republicans will be advocating their proposal.
At the heart of the Republican proposal is the belief that Democrats give more representation in their House plans to the Delta than the area deserves because of population losses.
In arguing for a change to the redistricting plan passed in the House by the Democratic majority, the Republicans want the collapse of two seats in the Delta currently held by white Democrats. The House rejected that proposal, but the the Republican-dominated Senate is trying to force the House to accept those Republican changes.
Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said it is necessary to eliminate those Delta districts and add seats in fast-growing areas because the region has lost 44,000 people since the 2000 census.
“Our plan better reflects the population shifts since 2000,” Gunn said, referring to the Republican alternative that was defeated by the full House.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the plan of the House Republicans does not level the playing field in regard to the Delta’s loss of population but actually penalizes the region.
To meet state and federal law, the Legislature tries to keep all districts within 5 percent above or below the ideal population size based on the 2010 census.
Under the plan of the House Republicans, every district in the Delta is above the ideal size. To do that to an entire region dilutes its voting strength, Bryan said.
But if the federal courts decide the argument of the House Republicans has merit, that could be bad news for Senate Republicans because, it could be argued, the Senate plan also does not take into account for the population loss in the Delta.
The Senate plan adds a seat in populous DeSoto County by merging District 8, which is based in Northeast Mississippi, with District 14, which touches on the edges of the Delta.
Unlike the Delta, the population loss in Northeast Mississippi counties was minimal, if any at all. But the Senate decided to merge District 8 because of the belief that the incumbent, Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, will not seek re-election. Gordon is battling a brain tumor.
Based on population shifts, it could make more sense to merge districts in the Delta and not involve one based in Northeast Mississippi in the consolidation. All of the Senate districts in the Delta, with the exception of portions of Eugene Clarke’s District 22 and Republican Briggs Hopson’s District 23, are represented by black Democrats. Both Clarke and Hopson are white Republicans.
Because of federal mandates to ensure the state receives minority representation close to its population, it is difficult to eliminate black districts in the Delta.
It would be easy to collapse Clarke’s district in the central portion of the state and to make Hopson’s district, which is based along the Mississippi River in Warren County, a black-majority district.
Asked if he would be willing to accept that change to reach agreement with the House, Hopson said, “I think the districts that have been drawn in the Senate are fair. …I don’t see where the Senate plan needs to be changed.”
But Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, speaking to the Senate and referring to white senators in districts in heavily black areas, speculated that if the issue goes to the court, “I think there are at least three of y’all that may not come back because of the increase in black majority districts.”
Currently, the Legislature is at loggerheads because the Senate, led by Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, wants to go to conference to change the plan passed in the House by the Democratic majority.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he will not go to conference because it is a time-honored tradition that each chamber does its own redistricting and the other chamber does not “meddle” in that process.
Legislative redistricting has never gone to conference before, McCoy pointed out.
The Mississippi chapter of the NAACP already has filed a federal lawsuit, saying that if the Legislature does not develop a plan before it adjourns, the courts should because of the extreme population deviations of the districts as they are currently drawn.
Both the Senate Republican majority and the House Democratic majority tried not to place incumbents in the same districts, though they concede that is virtually impossible to prevent.
The House plan, proposed by the Democrats, places two sets of incumbents – one a Republican and a Democrat and the other two Democrats – in the same districts. In both of those instances, the Democrat loyal to the House governing majority would be favored to win the election.
Besides merging District 8 and 14 in north Mississippi, the Senate plan also merges two in south Mississippi. That merged district is viewed as being beneficial to Republicans.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.