Redistricting forces politicians to make tough choices

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The plan the Mississippi Senate passed last week to redraw its 52 districts merges District 8, represented by Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, with District 14, held by Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona.
Senate Elections Chairman Terry Burton, R-Newton, merged the two districts to create one that snakes more than 100 miles across the state from Shannon in Lee County to north Greenwood in Leflore County.
The alternative plan offered by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, but rejected by the full Senate, created a similar district.
The plan takes a seat that has been occupied for years by a Northeast Mississippian and creates a district where it is iffy at best whether it will continue to be represented by someone living in the area – especially if Gordon, who is battling a brain tumor, does not seek re-election.
It would have been relatively easy to preserve the existing geographic framework of the Gordon district as a safe Northeast Mississippi district.
Still, Burton and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, did not draw the plan to punish Northeast Mississippi. They drew it to help preserve the Republican seat held by Chassaniol.
Chassaniol’s seat currently is located in north central Mississippi on the edge of the Mississippi Delta and her black population – presumably Democratic voters – has increased slightly.
As with many areas throughout the state, it would have been possible to eliminate her district and spread its population to help build up surrounding districts that had lost population.
But instead, the Chassaniol and Gordon districts were merged; in addition, what is considered a safe new Republican district was placed in fast-growing DeSoto County.
Tougher to win
The plan passed by the Senate puts most incumbents in districts where they shouldn’t have a more difficult time of winning than they have now.
The plan does place Sens. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and Ezell Lee of Picayune, a recent convert to the Republican Party, in the same district.
Overall, said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, the plan is favorable to Republicans. Bryan, who was chair of the Elections Committee in 2001 during the last round of redistricting after the 2000 census, assisted Burton in drawing the districts.
amp”I think it is wrong to think of a seat as Republican or Democrat,amp” Bryan said. amp”You hold elections for that … Maybe a seat is Republican leaning or Democratic leaning. But taken as a whole, Sen. Burton has produced a plan more favorable to Republicans than the existing Senate plan.amp”
Jackson attorney Andy Taggart, a leading GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, agreed.
In a memo, he refers to amp”the strongly Republican new districts in DeSoto County, along with a new district on the Coastamp” where the Republican candidate would presumably have a good chance of prevailing.
He added, amp”a number of incumbent Republicans serve districts that would be made stronger under the Burton plan.amp”
But Bryan said that’s OK in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 27-25 margin and have the presiding officer.
It should not be a surprise that members in the majority party – the Republicans – drew a plan favorable to them in the Senate while in the House the majority Democratic members drew a plan favorable to them.
Redistricting, after all, has been throughout the nation a political process.
But in Mississippi, Bryan said both chambers have developed plans that have districts throughout the state where either party has a chance to win, depending on who fields the better candidate.
Republicans, though, disagree.
They say the House plan is unfair to them, though it is hard to find an individual Republican unhappy with how his or her district has been drawn.
Both House and Senate leaders tried to ensure that the population of each district is no more than 5 percent above or below the ideal size – 57,063 for a Senate district and 24,22 for a House district – based on the 2010 census.
They believe that deviation level meets state and federal law.
Protecting incumbents
The House plan, like the Senate’s, goes to great lengths to protect incumbents of both parties. Both plans place only two sets of incumbents in the same district. And the House plan creates two new districts in DeSoto County.
Currently, it appears redistricting might be heading to a legislative deadlock – if Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant is successful in blocking the House plan in the Senate, as he has indicated he might try to do.
If he does, the issue could be thrown into the courts, possibly forcing candidates to run two years in a row.
If legislative candidates run later this year under the old districts, it would be incumbent on the new House and Senate to try to reach an agreement in the 2012 session on a redistricting plan and run later in 2012 under the new districts.
Or, theoretically, the courts could draw the districts. Taggart, in the memo, expressed concern about what could happen to Republican districts if the Democratic-controlled U.S. Justice Department intervened in the court action.
What would happen to Senate District 8 in either of those scenarios remains a question.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.