SID SALTER: Bryant stumbles in internal Senate redistricting showdown

By Sid Salter

Legislative redistricting this year in Mississippi is about many things. It’s about partisan advantage for the next decade, posturing for the outcome of the next House speaker’s race and – farther down the list – crafting districts that are compact, that protect communities of interest and that avoid retrogression in minority representation.
But those factors are what redistricting is about – or should be about – for the Legislature as an institution.
For individual lawmakers, redistricting is about their own political self-perpetuation and survival. It’s about getting a district that contains more supporters than opponents. It’s about protecting the “good” precincts and getting rid of the “bad” precincts. It’s also about using the process in a self-serving, crassly political manner to “carve out” potential or declared challengers in the next election to avoid the costs of a contested re-election bid.
At the political DNA level, redistricting for incumbent lawmakers is about getting re-elected – every legislator for themselves and partisan advantage for the next decade, compact districts, communities of interest and all those other more noble considerations can hang.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant apparently forgot that key fact this week while forging ahead on what he called a matter of principle. Bryant proposed his own redistricting plan over the Senate plan offered by the Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee. Bryant tried to substitute his plan for the plan offered by Senate Elections Committee Chairman Terry C. Burton, R-Newton, which created a Hattiesburg area majority-black district.
Burton’s plan represented a bipartisan compromise, but that didn’t stop some in the GOP of trying to throw Burton under the political bus. But the Senate wouldn’t have it.
Following a heated two-hour debate, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected Bryant’s plan by a 35-16 vote and then adopted the Burton plan by a 44-7 vote.
The overall legislative redistricting process continues to evolve and still face any number of legal and political machinations. This is, after all, the most political of processes.
But even conservatives backers of Bryant are chalking his challenge to the formal Senate redistricting plan as a political stumble of significant proportions that may have some impact the momentum his 2011 gubernatorial bid has built up to this point.
Clearly, supporters of Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis – Bryant’s Republican primary opponent – would like to pronounce Bryant’s mishandling of his redistricting challenge as an error that is far more significant. While losing a key vote in the legislative chamber a candidate leads is embarrassing and doesn’t come without political fallout, the notion that Bryant’s stumble in any way supplants his clear position as the 2011 gubernatorial front runner is more an exercise in wishful thinking by opponents than a defensible political conclusion.
The fact is that most of the individual senators could live with the plan Burton and his committee submitted and believed that plan had a better chance of passing U.S. Justice Department muster than did Bryant’s plan.
As the vote reflected, it’s clear that 44 senators found more to like about the Burton plan than about the Bryant plan. Again, if one buys into the fact that redistricting remains for most legislators an exercise in self-preservation that vote becomes easier to understand.
Of the seven Republican lawmakers who voted against the Burton plan and with Bryant – Sens. Lydia Chassaniol, Joey Fillingane, Billy Hewes, Billy Hudson, Tom King, Chris McDaniel and Cindy Hyde-Smith – two are seeking statewide office, one is seeking district office, two had direct interests in the shaping of Hattiesburg-area districts and two have been key Bryant backers.
Since the late Gov. Kirk Fordice tapped Bryant for state auditor in 1996, Bryant has led a rather charmed political life that has been free of such stumbles. But as Gov. Haley Barbour has proven over the last several months, even the most talented politicians can make mistakes and are called upon to pay the piper.
The challenge for Bryant moving forward is to mend fences in the Senate, complete the state budget process and transition the full GOP primary campaign mode without additional stumbles.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.