Panel unveils Senate redistricting proposal

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, March 8, 2011

JACKSON (AP) — A proposal to redraw the 52 Mississippi Senate districts quickly gained some support when released on Monday, but politics at the Capitol could derail it with the lieutenant governor saying he plans to produce his own revamped map.

The battle potentially pits Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant against the Republican-led redistricting committee he appointed.

A redistricting committee, made up of senators and House members, approved its own Senate remapping plan and sent it on to the Senate Elections Committee for more work. The plan will have to survive the second committee before going to the full Senate.

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Bryant, who’s running for governor, said he will release his own plan to redraw the Senate districts.

Bryant is the Senate’s presiding officer and lawmakers say it’s unprecedented for a lieutenant governor to circumvent the redistricting committee and release a separate map. Traditionally, the presiding officer supports the plan created by the committee.

Legislators are also redrawing the 122 districts in the House to reflect population changes in the 2010 Census. Both chambers are working on maps that would increase representation in fast-growing DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn., and account for population losses in the economically struggling Delta.

Bryant in a statement said the Joint Reapportionment Committee’s map is “the beginning of the process” of redistricting. He did not respond to an interview request from The Associated Press.

Bryant said on Marshall Ramsey’s radio show on Supertalk Mississippi that he has been working with Republican political consultant Josh Gregory to draw his own map. Gregory helped revamp Mississippi’s congressional districts after the 2000 Census.

The biggest differences between the committee’s plan and Bryant’s are expected in the Pine Belt area in and around Hattiesburg and in the Jackson area.

“I continue to oppose the gerrymandered district within the Pine Belt area that collapses a Republican district only to create one controlled by Democrats,” Bryant said.

For the past decade, the Hattiesburg area has had three Senate districts, all currently held by white Republicans. One of them, Tom King, is not seeking re-election.

The committee’s plan would convert one of the three seats into a majority-black district, giving Democrats a better chance to win it. Bryant’s would keep all as majority-white districts, making them safer for Republicans.

The Senate redistricting chairman, Republican Terry Burton of Newton, said that during 16 public hearings, one of the things people mentioned most often was a desire for a majority-black district in the Hattiesburg area.

“We produced a plan that is representative of the people of Mississippi,” Burton said Monday.

In the Jackson area, the committee’s plan would set a 50.3 percent black voting age population for District 29, now represented by David Blount, a white Democrat.

Lawmakers say Bryant’s plan would set a significantly higher black voting age population in District 29, which could make it harder for Blount to be re-elected.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said that based on Census numbers, the Hattiesburg area is entitled to 2.2 Senate districts. Bryan supports the committee’s plan and said it’s “disturbing” that Bryant and the area’s three current senators are only listening to Republican supporters.

Bryan said some Hattiesburg-area residents have been pushing for years for a majority-black Senate district, and it was easy to draw one. Bryan asked: “Why are not their voices just as important as the other voices?”

Legislators face a time crunch because Mississippi’s new redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted. Lawmakers say the Justice Department needs about 60 days to examine the maps. June 1 is the candidates’ qualifying deadline for this year’s legislative elections.

The House passed its own redistricting plan this past week and it awaits Senate consideration. The 66-56 House vote was split largely along party lines, with most Democrats for and most Republicans against.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday that the House plan would leave many Mississippians without fair representation particularly in growing suburbs around Jackson and Hattiesburg. Bryant said he does not expect to see the House plan supported in the Senate.

The Senate has 12 majority-black districts. The plan released Monday would increase that to 15. Burton said 13 of the 15 would be considered viable for a black candidate to win because they’d have black majorities of at least 60 percent.

The Senate committee’s plan also would reduce the number of split precincts from 129 to 17.



Mississippi Redistricting Committee’s maps: