Friday, January 18, 2002

Legislative Hardball

Rep. Tre Hargett's version of it may have led to the final reapportionment plan.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2002 at 4:00 AM

So how did it develop that the General Assembly's Democrats had an overnight sea change? Only 24 hours after proposed a scheme of statewide reapportionment that forced 12 Republican state representatives into six districts, the Dems agreed to another plan that freed up all those GOP incumbents to run in friendly districts -- by themselves.

Unquestionably, one explanation is summoned up in the phrase "ol' boys' club," the term used disgustedly by Nashville Tennessean columnist Larry Daughtrey, who smells an Incumbent Protection Act in the final redistricting plan adopted with virtual unanimity last week.

Yet another is that of fear of litigation. The redoubtable Memphis lawyer -- and Republican state committeeman -- John Ryder was ready to go with a lawsuit had the majority House Democrats' original plan been offered up for a vote (and, in fact, Ryder still hasn't totally renounced the idea of taking Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and company to court.

But a third reason for the sea change -- largely unspoken to thus far -- concerns a crucial backroom game played by several Republican legislators from Memphis.

The story begins with the question of Senate reapportionment.

It is well known that state Senator Curtis Person, who has been reelected to represent District 31 (East Memphis) in the legislature without opposition since the late '60s, wants to preserve that admirable record (probably a nationwide one) until the day he retires -- presumably well in the future, although one hears rumors about an exit after this term.

The general population shift that sees Memphis and its environs yielding influence to other parts of the state -- notably Nashville and its suburbs -- made it appear after the 2000 census that Shelby County would have to sacrifice one of its six state Senate seats. Given the reality of Democratic control of the legislature, that meant the probability that a Republican senator from Shelby would have to be sacrificed.

There were only two -- Person and freshman senator Mark Norris (District 32), and the Democrats' first plan did indeed place the two of them in the same proposed new district, forcing a showdown between an esteemed veteran and a well-regarded newcomer whose old district would have accounted for fully 65 percent of the new one, geographically.

Who would have won? You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

But since Person was chairman of the GOP's reapportionment committee and Norris was a member and both therefore had a real chance to influence the final lines, they did their best to see that no such choice became necessary.

Person in particular is given credit for working out a different arrangement with Gallatin's Senator Jo Ann Graves, chairman of the whole Senate reapportionment committee.

The new plan retained the general framework of six state Senate seats for Shelby County, though it did so by moving both Person's and Norris' districts eastward and extending Norris', which already incorporated Tipton and Lauderdale counties, into Dyer County as well.

So far, so good.

Until the House Democrats revealed their flagrantly gerrymandered plan, week before last, that would have forced the aforesaid dozen Republicans to halve themselves via mortal combat.

Three of the potentially affected Republican state representatives inhabited the same reaches of Shelby County as did Norris and Person. These were Tre Hargett (District 97) and Bubba Pleasant (District 99), both of Bartlett, and Paul Stanley (District 96) of Germantown and Cordova.

Because the county's population loss, both absolute and relative to their counties, seemed to dictate the loss of a Shelby seat in the House, all these relatively junior Republicans were at risk.

The decision by their colleague Larry Scroggs (District 94), also of Germantown, to foresake reelection and seek the office of county mayor instead seemed at first to provide an escape clause, in that Scroggs' seat could be, in effect, deleted (actually, shifted to the Shelby-Tipton border), thereby taking up all the slack and leaving the incumbents safe.

The initial Democratic plan was a standard that flew in the face of such logic. The first version had Hargett and Pleasant wedged in together; a revised version put Hargett in with Stanley. Both versions were in tune with the Democrats' underlying logic -- to displace as many troublesome Republicans as possible, while leaving the clubbier, more bipartisan specimens alone.

Hargett was the fly the House Democrats wanted out of the ointment in Shelby County, and both configurations of the original plan inconvenienced him accordingly.

The ambitious Bartlett Republican had not become a gadfly to the majority by virtue of his passiveness, however, and once again he declined to be docile. Hargett, who thought seriously last year of challenging Rep. Steve McDaniels of Parkers Crossroads for the post of House minority leader, let it be known that, as long as he was forced to compete with a fellow Republican, he might as well try to promote himself to the other chamber.

He would, in short, run for the Senate against the no longer inviolable Person -- let the chips, and the votes, fall where they may.

No sooner did that prospect percolate throughout the state Capitol than Senators Person and Norris were paying a courtesy visit to House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of Covington. No transcript of the visit exists, but not long afterward the new -- and final -- House reapportionment plan emerged, with its roster of six gladiatorial combats involving 12 incumbent Republicans no longer on the bill.

The legislature being what it is -- a go-along to get-along body -- Rep. Hargett may have rubbed a few in both parties the wrong way. But the legislature also respects power plays, and Hargett got away with one last week. Big-time.

• Norris hasn't skipped a beat in shaping his rhetoric to accommodate his newly configured district. He has always spoken of the increasingly dilapidated condition of the University of Memphis and of a professorial "brain drain" there when talking of legislative priorities. In speaking to the Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Audubon Cafe last Saturday he added Dyersburg Community College.

The senator also pumped for his legislative proposal to enable special school districts with their own taxing power -- including one that would encompass the present borders of the Shelby County school district. David Pickler, president of the county school board, had urged legislative attention to Norris' bill at a special committee hearing last month.

The proposal is sure to run afoul of Shelby County's urban representatives, however, as it already has of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who has made his own proposal for a "single-sourced" funding formula that would roughly equalize expenditures between districts while leaving them administratively separate.

Speaking in the City Hall auditorium Tuesday to a specially assembled meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club, Herenton repeated his already-stated opposition to the Norris-Pickler plan, contending that it would be financially "ruinous" to county taxpayers and in violation of what the mayor sees as the urgent need for city and county governments to consolidate.

Herenton, who has argued for consolidation for years and made a much- noticed appeal for it on a New Year's Day speech, announced to the Rotarians that he would reveal his blueprint for consolidation to the City Council at its regular meeting next Tuesday.

• Another education-minded political figure was in Memphis last week, making the case for his own proposals. Former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro, now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, said he would stand by the principle of "Gateway testing" in the schools which has recently become controversial in Memphis.

Womack also declared in favor of charter schools -- with a difference. Calling his version "volunteer" schools, the former Senate Education Committee chairman added a level of qualification, proposing to clear such newly created public institutions through local school boards before the state Education Department or state Board of Education would be asked to approve them.

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