Residents from the northern portion of Rutherford County could be represented by their own legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly under the proposed redistricting plan revealed Wednesday by state lawmakers.
The new district would increase the Rutherford County delegation in the state House from three to four representatives for the next decade.
“I am ecstatic that the state has recognized the need for representation in our area,” said La Vergne Mayor Senna Mosley.
The proposal splits District 49, currently held by Republican state Rep. Mike Sparks, into two separate seats. The new District 37 would comprise eastern La Vergne, a portion of Smyrna, Walter Hill and north Murfreesboro.
The redistricting plan is expected to be put to the House floor for a vote Tuesday when state lawmakers reconvene for the second session of the 107th General Assembly.
Sparks represents District 49, which would now consist of western La Vergne and Smyrna, as well as a stretch of northern Murfreesboro near Stones River National Battlefield.
“While we appreciate everything Mike Sparks has done on behalf of La Vergne,” Mosley said, “having a voice dedicated to the needs of the northernmost community in Rutherford County is huge for us.”
Although Sparks would lose more than 60,000 constituents to District 37, he said having an additional representative would strengthen the county’s stature in the General Assembly.
“I’m pleased with my new district,” Sparks said. “The new district map would give us more clout for Rutherford County and the MTSU community. For instance, the Science Building would be one of the projects I would like to focus on this session.”
The district boundaries for the two state Senate seats would also be modified as part of the proposal.
Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro would no longer represent Lincoln, Marshall and Maury counties. Instead, District 13 would be confined to the western half of Rutherford County.
The eastern side of the county would be in the new District 14, represented by Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville. District 14 would also comprise Bedford, Marshall, Moore and Lincoln counties.
“I am honored to continue to represent the constituents of Rutherford, Bedford and Moore counties,” Tracy said, “and I look forward to representing new constituents in Lincoln and Marshall counties.”
This is the first time the Republican Party has controlled both chambers of the state legislature during a year of redistricting, which occurs every 10 years as part of the U.S. Census.
“I was a part of history,” Sparks said. “This is the first time Republicans were able to draw districts, and I’m proud of the work everyone did in committee.”
Although members of the Democratic Party have already criticized the plan, local Republicans said they see this as an opportunity to correct decades of gerrymandering, a practice in which districts are clearly drawn with the intent to improve the majority’s political advantage in future elections.
“We were primarily concerned with making sure the district lines made sense … that they were demographically even and fair, which is an improvement from when they were drawn 10 years ago,” said Republican state Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas. “We tried to stay away from gerrymandering.”
According to the Regional Integrity Plan outlined by the state Senate, the proposed map balances Tennessee’s constitutional imperative to minimize county splits with the equal population standards required by the U.S. Constitution by dividing only eight counties and keeping the overall range of deviation below 10 percent.
During the past decade, the population in Rutherford County has grown by more than 25 percent, and recent demographic projections estimate it will continue to be one of the fastest growing areas in the state.
“We tried to forecast the growth of the county,” Carr said. “Our goal was to make sure we outlined the districts in a way best-suited for the future. That is why my district is slightly larger demographically … The population in the western part of Rutherford County is growing much faster than the eastern side, which is my district.”
However, Democratic legislators are angry because they claim the proposed districts lower minority representation in Memphis and Chattanooga. In addition, eight Democrats currently reside in four districts under the proposal – meaning they would have to compete against one another to be reelected.
Compared with the current district maps, the proposed redistricting plan does not change the number of minority-dominated districts in the state. But it could result in some new minority legislators winning elections to seats currently held by incumbent Democrats.
“Politics has completely polluted this process at the expense of voters and communities,” said Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party. “We should be fighting to preserve the collective voice of communities – not diluting their voice in the state legislature.”
State Rep. Mike Turner, who serves as chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House, said Thursday the party has already decided it wants to head to court to challenge the redistricting plan.
Carr said he is not surprised by the Democratic Party’s reaction to the proposal.
“They said they would do that regardless of what we proposed,” he said. “Several lawyers have already analyzed the plan to ensure it met state and federal laws, and I believe a lawsuit would probably be dismissed without merit.”
Sparks said he would rather see state lawmakers focused on “important issues than spending time and money to challenge the redistricting map,” adding he is also not worried about a court challenge because “none of these districts have been gerrymandered."
“But, I understand why the Memphis delegation is upset because they are losing some representation, but they have lost population,” he said. “Some will be pitted against one another, so there will be some turf wars.”
Nevertheless, he said state lawmakers should stop bickering.
“State lawmakers should be more focused on the issues facing the community,” he said, “instead of their political positions.”