Miss. House redistricting targets white Democrats

Published 4:21 pm Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Republican redistricting plan for the Mississippi House would increase black majority districts at the expense of white Democratic lawmakers.

The plan, released Wednesday and approved by the House Elections Committee, could come to a vote as soon as Thursday. A Senate plan has yet to be released.

“It’s fair and it complies with the law,” said Reapportionment Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson. The chairman of the Joint Reapportionment Committee read his statement word-for-word in three separate meetings Wednesday. He said districts are more tightly drawn and that fewer counties and precincts are split.

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House Republicans, who gained control of the body for the first time this year, could increase their 64-58 margin if their plan is approved. However, legislative redistricting is already under challenge in a federal lawsuit and Democrats indicated they would introduce their own plan on the floor of the House.

The GOP tilt is obvious in the three pairs of white Democratic incumbents who could be forced to run against each other in the next state election, as well as the white Democrat drawn into a Republican district. But efforts to snuff out what was once Mississippi’s dominant political species run deeper.

The plan divides Mississippi’s voters into 79 districts that have a voting-age population that’s less than 35 percent black, and 42 districts whose voting-age population is more than 50 percent black.

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, would be the only House member representing a district somewhere in between, with 40 percent black voting-age population.

Under the current plan, which has to be redrawn to account for population shifts since the last census, there are 70 districts with less than 35 percent black voters, 41 majority-black districts, and 11 in between.

Voting in Mississippi is racially polarized, with blacks voting overwhelmingly for Democrats and whites voting more for Republicans. Districts containing between 35 percent and 50 percent blacks have been the most fertile territory for white Democrats in recent years in Mississippi. Of the 11 seats in the range, eight are held by white Democrats.

“The plan was clearly drawn to eliminate as many white Democrats as possible,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, who would be drawn into a district with Denny where Denny would be favored. Brown’s district, now in north Jackson, shifted to fast-growing and very Republican southwest Madison County.

Significantly, two of the three seats currently held by Republicans would be redrawn to be entirely within the GOP bastion of DeSoto County under the new plan. DeSoto County, which grew rapidly in the last decade, would have six districts entirely within its border and share only one seat. Now it has three whole districts and shares three seats.

New seats would also be created in Republican-leaning areas of Forrest and Oktibbeha counties. Seats would be subtracted from the Delta and Hinds County, which lost population. There would also be a big rearrangement of seats along the Alabama state line from Tupelo to Meridian, creating a new black majority district centered in Kemper County and redrawing the seat of House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, to reduce black population in his district from 51 percent to 17 percent.

Areas along the coast and in southwest Mississippi would see fewer major shifts. Republicans have courted black Democratic support, allowing many to have input on their district. But it’s not clear if they will get any. Rep Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, voted against the plan in the House Elections Committee.

“If we’re going to only have 38 African-Americans down here, with the balance Republican, there won’t be a damn thing I can get done,” he said.

Besides Brown and Denny, incumbent representatives who would be placed in the same district under the plan include:

— Kevin Horan, D-Grenada, and Linda Whittington, D-Schlater.

— Tommy Taylor, R-Boyle, and Robert Huddleston, D-Sumner.

— Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, and Jason White, D-West

— Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, and Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

Stringer and Eaton, friends who share neighboring districts, said being paired puts them in a bind.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Stringer, who was Appropriations Chairman before Democrats lost the majority. “It’s just one way they can penalize the Democrats.” “This does away with some of the rural legislators that have made a positive impact on the state during their careers,” Eaton said. “It’s a shame they’re going to be eliminated through the process.”

The paired lawmakers are far from the only ones in danger. First-term Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, faces trouble with his Scott County district being drawn deep into Rankin County. He said he feared his county would end up being represented by members from Newton and Rankin counties.

“The people of Scott County will have no voice at the Capitol if the plan stays,” Miles said.

Online: Proposed Mississippi House map: http://bit.ly/I9URyV