Senators passed the Republican redistricting plan out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening, only hours after the General Assembly convened in Nashville.
Speaker Pro Tempore Sen. Bo Watson explained the reasoning behind the way the map was drawn after Sen. Mike Bell expressed his dislike of splitting the county.
In spite of his dislike for the bill, Bell voted for the redistricting plan in committee and will also vote for it when it arrives on the Senate floor later this week.
Bell said he has been on the phone constantly for the past month since he learned of the possibility of splitting the county.
“I have sat down with not only you (Watson), but the rest of the Senate leadership and legal staff, not once, not twice, but numerous occasions trying to come up with another way to draw a map that would fit within the framework of the statutory and constitutional requirements. We were not successful. I still don’t like splitting Bradley County, but I understand as a member of the Senate, I have the responsibility to pass a redistricting plan that will be fair and legal.
“As much as I hate to, I’m going to be voting for this plan today and on the floor as well.”
Sen. Watson, who was responsible for redistricting in the eastern third of the state, said the 10th and 11th districts in Hamilton County were about 14,000 and 3,000 citizens short, respectively. Because they could not go south into Georgia to make up the shortage, the only directions were west and north or east and north.
Watson, of Hixson, who represents the 11th District, said once population is considered, then the committee looks at regional integrity and communities of interest.
“If you look at the economic development and you look at the partnerships that have occurred between counties — there is no comparison between the relationship between Hamilton County and Bradley County compared to Marion County or any other county,” Watson said. “Bradley County and Hamilton County have worked cooperatively on a number of very large economic development projects.
“The fastest area of growth in the state is along the Interstate 75 corridor between Hamilton County and Bradley County. That regional integrity and communities of common interest was a key factor. That drove us to the east to see how we could make the numbers add up.”
Bradley County could not be kept whole because the district would be too large, but the committee was able to keep the city of Cleveland whole in the 9th Senate District and Charleston is kept whole in the 10th Senate District.
“One thing that’s good about this map is it follows some geographic and other type barriers, like the time zone,” he said. “Primarily, the driving force behind this was the need to pick up population for the 10th Senate District and the need to maintain regional integrity.”
Sen. Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, compared redistricting to solving a Rubik’s Cube.
“I finally threw mine away because I never could get them the same color [on all sides]. This was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he said.
In the end, he believes the Republican plan is much more fair and legal than the Democratic plans of the last 30 years.
Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, said he has worked with redistricting enough to know it is very, very difficult and constrained by the federal mandate of one-person, one-vote and the Tennessee Constitution.
“I’ve learned enough about this over the past two days that I think I can probably form a dumb question,” he said.
He said it seems Article 2, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution prohibited the division of Bradley County. In a district composed of two or more counties, the counties must be contiguous and no county is to be divided in forming the district.
“That seems to be exactly what’s being done by the division of Bradley County. I understand there are competing interests there, but when I look at that constitutional directive, it would seem that is potentially something that could cause a challenge.”
Watson responded that anything can be challenged.
“If you’re willing to pay the price of the suit, you can challenge it,” Watson said. “I can just reiterate what our thinking was and why we made the decision that we made.”