NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposed U.S. House map that carves up fast-growing, Democratic-leaning Nashville into three different congressional districts advanced another step Thursday over strenuous objections from Democrats that it unfairly dilutes Black representation in Tennessee.
The Senate redistricting panel's vote to move along the map came a day after a counterpart GOP-led state House committee gave the public a first look at its similar map and passed it to the next step. In lawmakers' once-a-decade task of carving new legislative and congressional districts, they appear to have the new U.S. House map on a fast track and it could come up for final votes as quickly as next week.
Democrats have argued the map is a brazen move by Republicans to try to flip a Democratic seat, including by diluting the voice of Nashville-area Black voters by splitting them into multiple districts. The Democrats’ narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives is leading to fierce battles across the country over new congressional districts.
Republican leaders in Tennessee, who hold the votes to impose their will on the minority, say population shifts elsewhere in the state and growth in and around Nashville justify dividing the city up. They contend having three U.S. House members would give it more representation, not less.
The map has grabbed the attention of Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under then-President Barack Obama and current chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder has promised “to do all that we can to prevent Republicans from silencing the voices of our fellow citizens in Nashville,” saying the map would split up the Black population, “effectively relegating their interests to the political backburner.”
“This unacceptable, gerrymandered map is clearly a politically-motivated attempt to rip up Nashville’s identity for one reason: to gain illegitimate power,” Holder said in a statement Wednesday.
Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to gain control of the U.S. House.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton have focused their defense on arguing that the map hits all the legal requirements needed to withstand a legal challenge.
The map proposals, shaped around state and federal requirements, must be approved by the House and Senate chambers before they can go before the governor for approval. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has veto power over the finalized plan, but he’s not expected to put up many objections.
“The recommended maps are fair and legal, disturb no currently serving legislator and preserve, as much as possible, current district composition,” McNally said in a statement Wednesday.
Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation consists of seven Republicans and just two Democrats, whose districts center on Nashville and Memphis. For months, Democratic lawmakers and community activists have pleaded with GOP lawmakers to keep Nashville’s seat whole, arguing the Davidson County district has remained intact for nearly 200 years.
Tennessee’s 5th District is held by Democratic U.S. House Rep. Jim Cooper. It’s long been centered on the state’s capital city and has been a safe Democratic stronghold in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans. It contains all of Davidson and Dickson counties, and part of Cheatham County.
Under the newly proposed map, Nashville would be split into three districts. The districts of Republican U.S. Reps. John Rose and Mark Green would include a portion of Nashville, and Cooper would be forced into a new district that includes a portion of Davidson, Williamson and Wilson counties, as well as all of Lewis, Marshall and Maury counties.
Cooper’s new district would be made up of about 11.8% Black residents out of those old enough to vote, and the other two would be 8.6% and 15.5% Black, according to Doug Himes, a House attorney. Davidson County has about a 27% total Black population, with the larger 5th District hovering around a 24% Black population.
“In Middle Tennessee, there’s a significant African American population in East Nashville, in North Nashville, in Southeast Nashville and in Rutherford County,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, said during the Thursday hearing. “And we managed to put that population in four different districts.”
Any legal effort to overturn maps is constrained by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including in 2019 when the court ruled that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business. The decision has no effect on racial gerrymandering challenges. Courts have barred redistricting aimed at reducing the political representation of racial minorities for a half-century.