Republicans on a state House redistricting panel voted to adopt a plan to divide Davidson County into three congressional districts, dramatically changing representation for Nashville’s minority communities and prompting plans for a legal challenge.
“The General Assembly has formally begun gerrymandering Nashville and Davidson County into political oblivion,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who has represented Nashville since 2002. “Under the new map announced today, Nashvillians will be reduced from proud citizens of a capital city to captives inside three colonies run from Clarksville, Cookeville and Columbia.”
The congressional seat representing Davidson County has remained intact for nearly 200 years. Nashville is the most rapidly growing area in the state, according to census data, but the new map appears aimed at giving Republicans an advantage as the GOP angles to retake a U.S. House majority in 2022. Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation currently includes seven Republicans and two Democrats.
“This is a vicious map,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, who sits on the panel. “There was no stone unturned in this map to give a complete 100-year advantage to the majority party in this map. It will take a long, long time to recover.”
Tennessee’s current 5th District — which includes all of Davidson, Dickson and most of Cheatham counties — is unrecognizable on the new map. The new 5th District drops Dickson, Cheatham and most of Davidson County, and adds Lewis, Maury, Marshall and parts of Williamson and Wilson counties.
Parts of Davidson County would also be included in the new 6th and 7th congressional districts, currently held by U.S. Reps. John Rose, R-Cookeville, and Mark Green, R-Clarksville, respectively.
The map still requires approval from other committees, both House and Senate bodies, and final approval from Gov. Bill Lee. A redistricting panel in the state Senate is expected to reveal a parallel congressional map during a meeting scheduled for Thursday morning.
Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, called the proposal “shameless gerrymandering at its worst.”
Minority representation impacted
Black and other minority voters would make up a significantly smaller portion of the voting-age population in all three new districts that represent parts of Nashville.
The current 5th District includes a roughly 24% Black population of voting age, but the new 5th District is 71% white, 12% Black and 10% Hispanic. Meanwhile, the new 6th District includes 9% Black and 7% Hispanic people of voting age, and the new 7th District includes 16% Black and 7% Hispanic people of voting age.
“I have great issue with the dilution of minority voters, specifically within Davidson County, under this plan,” Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, said during Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“The damage this map does to the political influence of minority groups in Nashville is devastating. Our robust, diverse communities in Nashville are represented and affirmed in Washington, D.C., today when Nashville has its own voice in Congress,” he said. “That voice is silenced when we are colonized by outlying rural communities.”
Proposed map draws criticism from Democrats
The Tennessee Democratic Party announced Wednesday it is preparing a lawsuit alleging that Republicans “racially gerrymandered” districts, which will lead to discrimination.
“Tennessee Republicans have split up Nashville’s Congressional district, denying an entire community of shared interests a voice at the national level,” the party shared in a statement on Twitter. “They are rigging the system for their own power and gain — we’ll see you in court, @TNGOP.”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who is the brother of Jim Cooper, said breaking up Nashville into multiple congressional districts will “undermine Nashville and make Washington out of touch with our community.”
“Nashville has had a congressional ‘seat’ since George Washington was president. There’s no sound reason to lose that, as Nashville is the 22nd-largest city in the U.S. and our region’s primary economic engine,” he said. “The decision to ignore Nashville is remarkably confusing — so much so that one must conclude it’s just a partisan power grab.”
Odessa Kelley, who is challenging Jim Cooper for his seat in the Democratic primary, called Republicans on the redistricting panel “white supremacists” and accused them of an “intentional attempt to dilute the voices of Black and brown voters in Tennessee.”
“This is no longer a democracy where everyone’s voices are heard. This is the new Jim Crow, where racist politicians will do anything to erase us and strip power from us,” Kelley said in a statement. “But I refuse to back down in the face of white supremacy — our community has survived too much for too long to stop now.”
Democrats excluded from drawing process
House Democrats were not permitted to review the map before the committee meeting, prompting criticism of what Republicans have touted to be an open and transparent process.
“This map has been kept under lock and key from some of us. I hadn’t seen it before now. ... My colleagues apparently hadn’t seen it before now,” Parkinson said. “I see it as inherently unjust for those of us that had not had the chance to look at this map and then be asked to move the map to the next committee.”
Chairman Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, procedurally denied Democratic members the opportunity to propose that the committee approve alternative maps.
When Democratic Leader Karen Camper proposed to delay a vote on the map to the committee’s next meeting to give members seeing the map for the first time a chance to consider the proposal, the delay was voted down. The panel’s Democratic members had seen the map for less than half an hour before the committee’s final vote.
“No one in Democratic leadership have seen or talked or had a conversation about this map until this very moment,” Camper said. “I would ask that … we go ahead and table it for now and just continue the conversation. We have time.”