OPINION: State faces another heated redistricting

Little of the same redistricting tension that surrounded the 2000 population census exists now as the Legislature awaits figures of the 2010 census. But that is not to say some angry partisan arm-wrestling – Democrat against Republican – over legislative redistricting won’t break out in the 2011 session.
A few things of consequence to Mississippi are known in advance of the 2010 census: One, though the state’s growth the past decade has been slow (less than 1 percent a year) it is not enough to cause the state to lose a U.S. House seat as it did in 2000; another, that since Mississippi elects officials in off-years, it will be one of the first three states to get the official census figures.
Assuming they will get census figures by March, 2011, lawmakers hope to start early on redistricting the 174 seats in the Legislature, a job that in 2002 wasn’t finished in regular session and required a special session. What clouded the 2002 session, however, was the explosive issue of having to remap the state’s five Congressional districts into four.
That fight – to eliminate one congressional district – was never completed, causing lawmakers to throw in the towel and handed redistricting to the courts. The state Republican Party stepped in and got the federal courts (even the U.S. Supreme Court) to snatch congressional remapping from state courts. Three GOP-leaning federal judges proceeded to draw a four-district map that favored a Republican winning the contested new Third District seat.
The Legislature is charged by the state constitution with decennially redistricting both seats in the Legislature as well as state congressional districts according to nearly equal population as shown by the last census.
Ironically, prior to 1964, state legislative districts weren’t redrawn by the Legislature because a powerful House Speaker named Walter Sillers ruled that the legislative apportionment section in the 1890 constitution said the Legislature “may” reapportion seats decennially. To him that meant “never” and he ruled all proposed redistricting bills out of order.
Besides, Sillers’ ace in the hole was a weird section in the old 1890 constitution that divided the state House of Representatives into three “grand” divisions, designating counties in each grand district and the number of seats to which they were entitled. Finally, all of the state’s constitutional apportionment garbage was wiped out in federal courts by 1974. (Remember, black voters had been considered a non-factor in Mississippi politics until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.)
Partisanship, whether you identify yourself as a Democrat or a Republican – totally unknown to the 1890 constitution drafters – now hangs over the legislative process and can erupt into nasty confrontation at unexpected times. Though virtually all legislators for many years called themselves a Democrat, the Legislature was actually a no-party body. But a sharp divide along party lines was introduced with the arrival of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in 2004.
The state GOP made noises in 2002 legislative redistricting that it wanted to achieve “parity” in the Legislature’s makeup, especially the Senate. It made some headway, but Democrats kept a small numerical majority in the Senate, and about two-thirds of the House. Although the Senate currently stands 27-25 Democratic, Barbour maintains effective control of that chamber by getting at least six “soft” Democrats to back him.
In the 2002 legislative debacle over congressional redistricting when the state lost one U.S. House seat, the Mississippi House had passed a plan. It merged the 4th district of Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows and the 3rd district of Republican Chip Pickering and gave Shows a slight advantage by keeping his Democratic base counties and almost the same black voting strength. The Senate pushed a different plan favored by Republicans and then later refused to accept a House compromise before the session ended.
Unknown at the time was the fact that the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, then a Democrat, was planning to soon switch parties and run for reelection as a Republican.

Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor