Raw politics, power drive redistricting

If you want to see pure, unvarnished politics in action, the special session on congressional redistricting that begins Thursday in Jackson is the place to be.

There's nothing high-principled about what's about to take place. It's all about power - who gets it, who gets to keep it - whether political parties or individuals.

That's always the case with redistricting of any kind. It's true in spades when you've got to consolidate, as Mississippi does, from five districts to four.

If Northeast Mississippi winds up connected in a congressional district to parts of the Jackson metropolitan area by a dangling funnel cloud or boot or whatever it may be called, it will be because the Democrats in the Legislature - and the national Democratic Party - got what they wanted to protect Ronnie Shows, the 4th District congressman.

Republicans are crying foul, but if the tables were turned, you can bet they would find a way to justify their own oddly configured district.

It's just that the redistricting map that would favor the 3rd District Republican, Chip Pickering, over Shows also happens to be the most logical one and the one that works in Northeast Mississippi's best interests.

The security of 1st District Republican incumbent Roger Wicker is not in question. Whether the district dips into the Jackson area or stays relatively compact and largely in Northeast Mississippi, Wicker isn't in danger of being placed in the same district with another incumbent. That misfortune will go to Shows and Pickering.

The Democratic "tornado" plans actually add to Republican strength in Wicker's district by shifting tens of thousands of reliable GOP voters in suburban Jackson into the current 1st District area. Yet a big base of voters in that part of a new district could eventually yield a congressman not of this region.

The crux of the issue is, after giving Bennie Thompson his majority black district, what will be the racial composition of the consolidated Shows-Pickering district in central and southwest Mississippi? Democrats don't want Rankin County because there are too many white Republican voters there. Republicans want it for the same reason. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the Legislature, so the tornado plan or some variation of it has a big advantage from the start - even though it makes no sense as a compact, contiguous district of common interests.

Northeast Mississippi Democratic legislators have heard protests from other elected officials and civic leaders in their communities who don't like the tornado plans. They've at least got to hear out those protests.

House Speaker Tim Ford of Baldwyn is in a political bind. Does he follow the wishes of influential constituents back home, where he's re-elected regularly without opposition? Or does he instead protect his political base in the House, where a challenge to his speakership from angry Democrats could emerge? Ford has expressed lukewarm opposition to the tornado plan, but signs point to a stronger desire to protect his Capitol political base.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck - a Democrat, for now anyway - weighed in with her own plan, which likely was influenced by her Senate allies and advisers, Travis Little of Corinth and Jack Gordon of Okolona, who might someday like to throw their hats in the congressional ring. Whatever its motivations, Tuck's plan - though not without flaws - is better than the ones favored by other Democrats. At least it doesn't make that wild dip into the Jackson area.

And here's another crazy political element of a version of the tornado plan favored by key Democrats: The districts, now numbered 1-5 from the north down, would be renumbered 1 to 4 from the Coast up. What possibly could be the reason for that? Well, consider that Pickering now is the 3rd District representative, Shows the 4th. Making the consolidated district the 3rd might imply to some voters that it belonged to the current 3rd District incumbent. Democrats don't want that, so they'd give Thompson the 3rd and Shows the 2nd.

Such are the ways congressional districts are drawn. Meanwhile, those in Northeast Mississippi and other areas who work hard for decades to establish a strong regional identity and cooperative spirit get run over in the partisan political stampede.

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. E-mail him at lloyd.gray@djournal.com

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