Journal: "Redistricting May Split South Madison." October 11, 2001
A Mississippi legislative panel has rejected three congressional redistricting proposals, and officials are scrambling to draw a plan that might win consensus.
Republican leaders here say high growth counties such as Lee and Desoto should not be lumped into the same congressional district with Madison County.
At least one plan would put suburban Jackson counties in other high growth, mostly white precincts in the far northern reaches of the state.
The clock is ticking because Gov. Ronnie Musgrove says he wants to have a redistricting special session sometime this month.
ìI donít want to go much later than that because we donít want to jeopardize elections,î Musgrove said in a written statement.
At a press conference on Monday, Musgrove, a Democrat, stopped short of criticizing what Republican leaders here fear.
The governor didnít say whether he supports putting DeSoto County on the Tennessee border and Rankin County just outside Jackson into the same district, as some of his fellow Democrats have proposed.
ìIíve not developed any preferences one way or the other,íí Musgrove said.
March 1 is the deadline for congressional candidates to qualify for 2002 races. The U.S. Justice Department, which must approve Mississippiís new political boundaries to ensure fairness to minorities, needs at least 60 days to examine the plan that eventually is approved.
That means legislators must adopt a new map by the end of this year.
Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, said sheís afraid legislators wonít see plan until itís time to vote.
ìI donít think we share any of the same interests with those in the Delta and I certainly think it would be more difficult if we were put in with Tupelo and had to go after some of the same federal dollars.î
Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg and a member of the joint legislative committee charged with redistricting said some of the plans split entire counties.
Chaney favors a compromise plan he drew called the Phoenix Plan that would put most of south Madison County in a district that combines Reps. Pickeringís and Showsí current districts.
ìItís a fair plan,î he said.
Mississippi is losing one of its five congressional districts because its population grew more slowly than many other statesí in the 1990s.
At Fridayís meeting in the state Capitol, a plan offered by the Legislative Black Caucus and was rejected in a vote divided along racial lines. All black members on the redistricting committee voted for it and all whites voted against it.
A second plan offered by Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, also was defeated. This vote split along party lines, with all Republicans for it and all Democrats against it.
The third plan rejected by the committee was offered by Rep. Joe Ellzey, D-Ellisville, who described it as a compromise.
Chaney said it was the Ellzey plan that would have split many of East Mississippi counties.
Ellzeyís proposal wouldíve kept intact most of the existing 1st District in the north, 2nd District in the Delta and 5th District on the coast, with the districts renumbered. It also wouldíve have combined parts of the 3rd and 4th districts now represented by U.S.
Rep. Chip Pickering, a Republican, and Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, respectively.
However, Pickeringís home county, Jones, wouldíve gone into the coast district. That wouldíve forced Pickering to run against U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., in the south or to move to run against Shows. Pickering has said heíd move.
Ellzeyís plan won approval of most House members but was rejected by a majority of senators.
The phoenix plan takes the three existing districts of Wicker, Thompson and Taylor and maintains 90 percent of their voting base, Chaney said.
It take the Shows, Pickering districts and mergers them while each maintains 50 percent of their voting base with a 34 percent black voting age population, only four percent less than Shows had when he was elected, Chaney said, and 6 percent more than Pickering had.
ìSo itís very fair to the Democrats,î Chaney said. *Shows has been lobbying for 40 percent black voting age pop, Chaney said.
Much of the discussion Friday centered on what percentage of black voting-age population each district would have. Voting patterns show a higher black percentage helps Democratic candidates and a lower percentage helps Republicans.
Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville, said lawmakers need to stop worrying about which incumbent members of Congress have advantages when lines are drawn.
ìI donít give a you-know-what about whoís re-elected,î he said. Pickeringís current district is in the east central part of the state, and Showsí district is in metro Jackson and the southwest corner.
The two meet in Jones County.
Second District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., attended Fridayís meeting. Showsí chief of staff, Burns Strider, and Pickeringís campaign manager, Henry Barbour, also were there.
Each of the plans presented Friday wouldíve kept a heavily black Delta district. Federal requirements bar states from diluting minority voting strength.
The Black Caucus plan had a mostly white district stretched across Mississippiís northern border and reached in a thin line down to Rankin County.
A proposal that has been publicly discussed but wasnít brought for a vote Friday is called the ìtornadoî plan because one district takes in most of north Mississippi and dips down into Rankin.
Denny noted a resemblance between the Black Caucus plan and the tornado plan.
ìWould you agree that perhaps this makes the tornado plan look like an April shower?î Denny asked. Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, a caucus member, responded: ìBeauty is in the eye of the beholder.î
Ridgeland Mayor Gene F. McGee, Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads and other officials have gone on record as being opposed to the so-called tornado plan.
Movement is stirring on two fronts to force legislators to reach agreement on a plan to redraw the state's congressional districts.
One would take them to court. The other could push them into a special session without a plan in hand.
A complaint filed in Hinds County Chancery Court requests a judge to decide on congressional redistricting, if legislators can't reach a consensus by Dec. 3.
Longtime activists Rims Barber and Bea Branch are the plaintiffs in the case against Secretary of State Eric Clark, Attorney General Mike Moore and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Those three were named in their official capacities as members of the state Board of Election Commissioners, which is responsible for overseeing the election process and enforcing election laws.
The Justice Department, which must approve any redistricting plan for Mississippi, needs at least 60 days to consider a proposed map. Plaintiffs set the Dec. 3 deadline to provide the department the time it needs, according to the lawsuit. No court date has been set.
On Monday, Musgrove also expressed frustration with the process. He said lawmakers have had months to reach a consensus, and he would be willing to call a special legislative session without a plan in place if the process lingers on. The special session would force lawmakers to sit down and hammer out the details.
"Let's go ahead and go into session and get a plan done so that we don't get into a situation of having to back the elections up because we've waited too late," he said.
The legislative redistricting panel on Friday rejected three proposals to redraw the state's congressional lines, leaving lawmakers with a deadline looming and no starting map in hand.
Barber said he was disappointed in the legislative redistricting committee's lack of action Friday, and he's made a preemptive strike for injunctive relief should the committee deadlock on redrawing congressional lines. Mississippi is losing a seat ó going from five to four districts ó because its population growth lagged other states'.
"We hope the Legislature will adopt a plan," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Rob McDuff of Jackson. "This lawsuit is there so if they don't, we have something in place."
Unless the Legislature adopts a plan in time for the March 1 qualifying deadline, the rights of Mississippi voters "to participate in a congressional election process conducted in a timely manner will be violated," the court document states.
In addition, supporters of various plans maintain how the state is remapped could affect which communities or universities get federal dollars and how much influence a political party holds.
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, chairman of the Joint Legislative Reapportionment and Congressional Redistricting Committee, said he wasn't aware of the complaint, which was filed Oct. 5. He said he thinks legislators are moving in a "good, timely fashion."
"I hope that a plan is agreed on, because I know if one is not, then obviously that (judicial involvement) would happen," Reynolds said. *The secretary of state's spokesman, David Blount, said neither Clark nor the Board of Elections commissioners controls redistricting.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck said she has been working behind the scenes to produce a compromise plan and expects the Senate to introduce a map soon.
She said legislators should have a plan in hand before a special session is called because it saves time and money.
"It would be in the best interest of the taxpayers to have a plan before we go into a special session," she said.
Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, a redistricting committee member, said the House put forth three plans Friday, all of which failed to pass. Now it's time the Senate stepped up to the plate with a suggestion, she said.
"Since they were not in favor of what we advanced, I want to see what in fact they had," she said. "We were disappointed to see no plans from the other side."
Tim Story, a redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states shouldn't let the courts determine redistricting because it places states at a disadvantage.
The legislative committee has heard public opinion, which weighs into its decision. A judge or court-appointed panel doesn't have that input. Judges can accept friend of the court briefs, but they don't have the same impact, Story said.
Also, federal judges don't have to run for election, so they don't have to answer for what they do, he said. The most important reason of all to bypass the courts is that it should be a legislative duty, Story said.
"It's not the job of the courts to wade into political issues," he said.
With the tentative blessing of African-American Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), black legislators in Mississippi have drafted an alternate House map designed to ensure that Democrats hold two of the state's four House seats.
The state Legislative Black Caucus' plan is the third major map being considered in Mississippi, which is losing one of its five House seats under reapportionment.
Another proposal, the so-called "tornado plan," would stretch one district from the Tennessee line to Rankin County in the central part of the state. Meanwhile, the "block plan" would partition the state into four roughly regional quadrants.
Under the caucus map, Thompson's district would have a 60 percent black voting-age population. Another district would force two incumbents, Reps. Chip Pickering (R) and Ronnie Shows (D), into a new district with a 39 percent black voting-age population.
The caucus also would maintain the GOP strength of Rep. Roger Wicker's (R) district, giving it a black voting-age population of 15 percent. Rep. Gene Taylor's (D) district would have a 19 percent black voting-age population.
Thompson said likes the caucus plan. "This is the only plan that I've heard of so far that does not allow retrogression to be a factor," he told the Associated Press.
A legislative redistricting panel on Friday rejected three proposals to redraw the state's congressional lines, leaving lawmakers with a deadline looming and no starting map in hand.
First, a vote along racial lines killed the Legislative Black Caucus plan, with black committee members voting for it and white members against it. Then a second plan called "econ/Denny," offered by Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, fell by the wayside along party lines as Republicans supported it and Democrats panned it.
Lastly, Rep. Joe Ellzey, D-Ellisville, offered a "compromise plan," but House members approved it while senators rejected it.
The state is losing a congressional seat because its population grew more slowly than other states in the 1990s. How the state is remapped could affect which community or university gets federal dollars and how much influence a party holds, supporters of various plans say.
Some legislators said they were hopeful about the beginning of an arduous process of carving Mississippi's four districts from five.
"I was disappointed," said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, "but at the same time the record should reflect the Black Caucus was willing to compromise."
Members of the Joint Legislative Reapportionment and Congressional Redistricting Committee left without knowing when they would meet again. The panel is working under a tight deadline to adopt a congressional map and get it to the Department of Justice. Justice Department approval could take 60 days or more. The qualifying deadline for congressional candidates is March 1.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove expressed concern about the deadline in a written statement following Friday's hearing.
"Speaker Tim Ford and I spoke back in August about holding a special session on congressional redistricting in October. I don't want to go much later than that because we don't want to jeopardize elections," he said.
Second District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only congressman at the meeting, said he favors the caucus' plan because, of the three proposals, it has the greatest percentage of black voting power in two districts, including his.
"The fact they're still discussing shows that there are a lot of concerns and interests to be considered," Thompson said.
The caucus' plan would give the district currently represented by Thompson a 60 percent black voting-age population and the area currently represented by 4th District U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows a 39 percent black voting-age population. The plan would also include Rankin and DeSoto counties in the area currently represented by 1st District U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker.
It is similar to the so-called "tornado" plan, so named because it creates a district winding from the Tennessee state line into Rankin County.
"It does not dilute African-American voting strength. It's well-suited to absorb the high population growth in the next decade," said Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, of the caucus plan.
Denny's plan favors the "block" plan that creates four compact districts. It would give the current 2nd District a 58.9 percent black voting-age population and the current 4th District a 30 percent black voting-age population. Denny said it would meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.
The incumbents' ability to get re-elected is a part of his map but not a main consideration, he said. "It seems a lot of maps I've looked at have taken nothing into consideration but the incumbents," he said.
But Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville, said, "I was under the impression we were drawing districts for the people of this state. I don't give a you-know-what about who's elected."
Under Ellzey's plan, the state's three major universities would be in separate districts, addressing concerns about the universities being in the same district.
Thompson's district would be at 58 percent black voting power and what Ellzey described as the Shows/Pickering district would be at 38 percent. However, the map places current 3rd District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering's home county of Jones in the Gulf Coast district. Fifth District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor currently represents the coast.
"These lines are drawn for 10 years," Ellzey said. "I think it would be foolish to draw a district for a certain congressman."
Blackmon said with a little tweaking, Ellzey's plan could be "a very good beginning" in the Legislature reaching a consensus on a plan.
Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, tried to get approval to allow the committee's redistricting expert to draw up a plan that would keep the 1st, 2nd and 5th districts at 90 percent or more of their current population and craft a district from the current 3rd and 4th districts where a Republican or a Democratic candidate would have an equal chance at winning.
"It would get us over an impasse of combining a district," Peranich said. Her motion failed.
Committee Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, said he liked Peranich's idea and maybe the committee could reconsider it.
Pickering's campaign manager, Henry Barbour, said the good news from the meeting was no version of the "tornado" plan was approved.
Shows' spokesman Burns Strider said legislators should draw a map that removes regional boundaries and allows the average Mississippian to have a voice. "We think that's really important," he said.
Third District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering may have to move his residence from Hebron west of Laurel depending on how the new congressional redistricting lines are drawn.
"I will have to wait and see where the lines are drawn, then decide who I can best represent and can win re-election," said Pickering, who would prefer to challenge Democrat Ronnie Shows, who currently serves the 4th district. "If my home is not in that district, I will establish a residence there before the election."
Mississippi is losing one of its five congressional seats because the state grew more slowly than many other states, based on the 2000 census.
Members of a legislative panel charged with redrawing Mississippi's lines are scheduled to meet today.
How the lines are drawn could affect party influence as well as financial resources for certain state universities and communities, supporters of various plans say.
At least two proposals ó the "tornado plan" and the Legislative Black Caucus plan ó being pushed could place Pickering out of the 3rd District into an area currently represented by 5th District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor. Another plan pushes him completely out of the district.
The tornado plan ó so named because it creates a district that appears to stretch from the Tennessee line to Rankin County ó largely differs from the caucus plan based on the black voting-age population.
Pickering warned adopting either plan could be harmful to the state's economy and unity.
"We would be better served if our districts were compact areas with common economic interests," Pickering said. "If you have two high growth areas like DeSoto and Rankin counties in one district, then they might get half of special discretionary federal funding they would get if they were in different districts.
"You would pit one area against the other which would not be good for the state." But Shows spokesman Burns Strider disagrees.
"Representative Shows supports a map where all Mississippians have equal representation," said Strider, who said Shows would not move from Bassfield. "We do not need to keep the status quo on a regional basis where the same old guard is running things.
"This is all about who is in charge."
Millions of dollars are at stake every year in areas from education to military bases, Pickering said.
"We should have just one major research university and one military base in each district," Pickering said. "As the facts become known, the people will speak out and the Legislature will see what is best for the state."
Pickering said he would prefer to run against Shows so he could continue to represent constituents in east Mississippi.
"But 50 percent of the people in (a new) District 4 will not be on the coast and the coast gave George W. Bush 66 percent of the vote," he said. "So a Republican could win."
The Black Caucus came up with its plan after rejecting the proposals currently on the table ó the tornado plan and a regional or "block plan" that would leave northeast Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast in traditional, compact districts to promote common economic interests
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who chairs the Joint Legislative Reapportionment and Congressional Redistricting Committee, said neither the tornado nor the block plan is likely to be adopted.
"Those two plans are not going to win blue ribbons for the best jar of preserves at the county fair," Reynolds said.
Reynolds, who refused to discuss the merits of specific plans, said the committee would take into account input from public meetings in its final plan.
"We will weigh all this stuff out, believe it or not, and come up with a plan that will be fair to everyone and beneficial for the people of Mississippi," Reynolds said. "I am not tied personally to any two or three plans, nor should I be."
A group of community, civic, economic development and military leaders from across the state have issued statement opposing the tornado plan.
Slicing a narrow path through central Mississippi to place Rankin County in District 1 with counties like DeSoto and Lee would have negative consequences said Tupelo mayor Larry Otis.
"It would put 200,000 people in the Jackson metro area voting for our representative," Otis said. "We want our representative to be from northeast Mississippi."
Otis favors a "regional plan over current districts" or the "block plan."
The tornado plan is seen by many as a way to put Republican-partisan Rankin County into Wicker's district to create one Republican district and benefit Shows in a 2002 showdown with Pickering.
Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, says the tornado plan and black caucus plans are legally defensible because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that redistricting can be done to achieve political goals.
"Mississippi for too long has districted to protect certain areas of the state," said Flaggs, who said booming Rankin and DeSoto counties should have to compete with each other for federal funds because of similar demographics. "All of Mississippi should share in the poverty of the Mississippi Delta.
"We are not going anywhere as a state until the Delta moves forward."
Others say the tornado plan would harm the state for partisan politics.
"The tornado plan would make it difficult for Meridian to continue its leadership role in our area moving to District 4 with the Gulf Coast," said Meridian Mayor Robert Smith. "We would be the tail of the dog if we were with the population they have on the coast."
Smith is concerned that being in a different district from Mississippi State University, which has a branch in Meridian, will hurt the city.
"We have cooperative efforts ongoing with Mississippi State for the rebirth of our downtown and we need to remain in the Third District with them to continue those efforts," Smith said. "We are also in a corridor of areas along I-20 getting automotive growth in Alabama and Mississippi and we do not need to be separated from others in that pursuit."
He also believes that putting and Naval Air Station Meridian and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi in District 4 would be a detriment.
"You need one representative fighting for each air base in the state," Smith said. "We don't need to divide those efforts."
Otis said the tornado district would make a shambles of economic development initiatives in northeast Mississippi by making the city compete with the metro Jackson area for federal grants.
"We have gotten a lot of cooperation in the Appalachian economic area we have here," he said. "We have money going to governments from (Tupelo-based) CREATE Foundation.
"The tornado plan would put two of our area counties, Monroe and Chickasaw, down in District 3."
Wicker said it is unnecessary to dip down into Rankin County to add 99,000 people in District 1.
"We grew faster than any other district," Wicker said. "You could add three counties in north Mississippi to get that."
Wicker said besides hurting the growth of DeSoto and Rankin counties and the Tupelo area, the tornado and Black Caucus plans would hurt constituent services and cost taxpayer dollars.
"We try to be very hands-on with constituent services with our two offices," Wicker said. "If we draw lines all the way to Rankin County, it will be very difficult to serve the people and will mean increased travel costs for our staff at the expense of taxpayers."
Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, a member of the redistricting committee, predicts the tornado plan won't fly "because it is not compact at all. "It just has all these fingers going every which a way.
"Secondly, it tears north Mississippi up," he said.
Gordon, like Otis, favors the "block plan" saying, "a lot of hard work went into it." Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck says she has not chosen a favorite plan.
"In this process, we have to be extremely fair," Tuck said. "We have to do what's right and what's in the best interest of this state.
"I certainly will sign off on a plan when I see it reaches those goals."
Tornado Hits Mississippi!
Well, not a real tornado, just a proposed House district in the Magnolia State that's being likened to a real live twister.
"They call it the tornado plan," state House Speaker Tim Ford (D) said Thursday of a new district that would stretch across northern Mississippi into Rankin County. He called the district "ugly" but acknowledged its appeal because of recent voting patterns and demographics.
The plan would create a GOP-leaning district, mostly with territory from Rep. Roger Wicker's (R) 1st district. It would take Rankin, a GOP stronghold, from Rep. Chip Pickering's (R) 3rd district.
That would help state legislators accomplish their goal of eliminating a House district (required under reapportionment) by forming a new seat that combines most of Rep. Ronnie Shows' (D) 4th district in southwest Mississippi with other parts of Pickering's current base.
The two Members would be thrown together into the new, combined district. Ford says the tornado plan would hurt Pickering and help Shows.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) is expected to call the Democratic controlled legislature into a special session for redistricting sometime this fall.
A legislative panel charged with redrawing congressional district lines has scheduled 11 public hearings around the state. The first hearing will be May 4 at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Others will follow around the state. Once detailed population figures are received from the U.S. Census Bureau, the panel's first work will be to redraw Mississippi's congressional districts.
The lines must be redrawn in time for
the 2002 congressional election. Mississippi will have four congressmen
instead of five, having lost a congressional seat to faster growing areas
of the country. Lawmakers expect to have a special session this summer for
congressional redistricting. The joint committee must redraw legislative
district lines in time for the 2005 statewide elections. Mississippi's
redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department to
ensure fairness to minorities. Other meetings are May 5, Gulfport; May 10,
Itta Bena; May 11, Yazoo City; May 12, Natchez and Summit; May 17, Oxford;
May 18, Fulton; May 19, Starkville and Meridian; and May 21, Jackson.
Forty years ago, Congressman Frank Smith knew just what to expect when Mississippi was forced to reduce its U.S. House representation in Washington from six to five. He was out. A racial moderate at a time when such political leanings were the death knell for politicos across the South, Smith had spent 10 years in Congress by the time the 1960 Census forced the Mississippi Legislature to redraw congressional districts. Smith, who died in 1997, had few friends in the Legislature. He could not obscure his liberal voting record, his support of the National Democratic Party or his backing of John F. Kennedy. By the 1962 elections, Smith was gerrymandered into a district with fellow Democrat Jamie Whitten and into a campaign he could not win.
Mississippi's congressional districts were changed little over the next 20 years. A reality check came in 1980, when the Justice Department finally insisted the state craft a black majority district. By 1986, Mississippi had a black congressman from the Delta-dominated 2nd District. The official announcement last week that Mississippi will lose a congressional seat as a result of the 2000 census creates uncertainty that did not exist in 1960 or in 1980 when radical redrawings of districts became necessary.
Two things are certain after the 2000 population count: The Justice Department will insist that a black majority district be maintained. And some juggling will occur in the remaining districts as four become three. ``Everybody in the state has gotten a napkin or a sheet of paper and drawn districts and moved lines around,'' Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said last week. Secretary of State Eric Clark said reapportioning will be a difficult. ``I called it a difficult and bloody process ... and that's about right when you try to squeeze five districts into four,'' Clark said. ``A couple of people are going to be hurt.''
The political fallout goes beyond mere numbers. Mississippi's storied politics runs on seniority. The Ingalls', the NASAs', the Nissans', the highways, the airports, the sewerage systems and other public works benefit from Mississippi's clout in Washington. That Mississippi has been able to attract government money for such projects is a testimonial to the longevity of the people voters return time and time again to Congress. Longevity brings clout. Remember the names Stennis, Eastland, Whitten, Montgomery, Colmer and others? ``The only thing that helps us is you've still got Trent Lott and Thad Cochran on the Senate side, and that will be the equalizer,'' said state Rep. Ed Blackmon Jr., D-Canton. ``The fact that you have Trent Lott as the leader of the Senate makes it elementary politics to consider that Mississippi is not going to be forgotten in the appropriations process.''
When the new Congress convenes this
month, Lott and Cochran will have 28 years in Washington. Both were
elected in 1972. If Republicans hold onto the Senate in 2002, Cochran
would be the next chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. On the
U.S. House side, Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat, is the longest serving
member, followed _ in seniority _ by Democrat Bennie Thompson, Republicans
Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering and Democrat Ronnie Shows.
New census statistics have created a flurry of questions about Mississippi's congressional redistricting, but one thing seems certain. Even as the state goes from five U.S. House seats to four, it's guaranteed to maintain a majority black congressional district. The federal Voting Rights Act requires the state not to ``retrogress,'' or move backward, in minorities' ability to participate in politics. More important to some experts is the question of fairness. They say keeping a majority black district is the right thing to do in a state with a 36.3 percent black population.
``The days of skullduggery over trying to get out of having a (majority black) district like that are probably over,'' said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government. ``When you talk about redistricting, most people start the conversation with, 'Of course, we've got to keep the 2nd District as close to what we have now.''' The 2nd District is Mississippi's current majority black congressional district. It's primarily in the Delta, stretching along the Mississippi River from Tunica County in the north to Jefferson County in the south. Addie Green of Bolton, a longtime NAACP member who lives in the 2nd District, said she feels better since Mississippi has had black representation in Washington. She believes a black congressman can relate more readily to black constituents. Keeping a majority black district is ''100 percent important to me,'' Green said. ``Not 10 percent. 100 percent.''
The assumption that black people should have a voice in politics is still a relatively new one in Mississippi. For decades, Jim Crow laws prevented black political participation. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 started removing barriers. In 1984, Mississippi adopted its first congressional district since Reconstruction with a majority black voting age population. The first black congressman, Mike Espy, was elected from the 2nd District in 1986. After Espy became U.S. agriculture secretary in 1993, longtime Hinds County supervisor Bennie Thompson won the congressional seat. He still represents the 2nd District. State officials received Mississippi's 2000 census data last week, and lawmakers will meet in special session later this year to redraw congressional district lines.
Mississippi's population grew 10.5 percent between 1990 and 2000, but the state is losing one of its five congressional seats because other states' populations grew more. As lawmakers tackle the jigsaw puzzle of redistricting, they'll keep a couple of factors in mind in drawing a majority black district. Experts say it's not enough just to have an overall black majority. They have to go a step further and craft a district with a majority black voting age population _ those 18 and older. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, vice chairman of the Legislature's reapportionment committee, said expanding the 2nd District might be a starting point in redrawing Mississippi's congressional map.
``We would have a very difficult time getting a redistricting plan approved that doesn't include a majority black district,'' Bryan said. After the 1990 census, the 2nd District was drawn with a 63 percent black population. The black voting age population was 58 percent. Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he wants to see the Delta district maintain at least a 55 percent to 60 percent black voting age population. Historical voting patterns show that's about what it takes to give a black candidate a shot at election, he said. Expanding the boundaries of the 2nd District could be challenging. Some Delta counties lost population, and there's a higher percentage of under-18 black than over-18 black population in the state.
``It's important that if the state of Mississippi is going to move forward, then we've got to make sure this state maintains the minority seat in Congress,'' Straughter said. Lawsuits in recent years challenged majority black congressional districts in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said race couldn't be the only factor in drawing district lines, but it could be one factor among many. Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, a member of redistricting committee, said Mississippi hasn't had problems like other states with majority black districts. Where Louisiana once had a congressional district that zigzagged through the state to pick up enough black population, Denny said Mississippi's was ``compact and contiguous,'' meaning it didn't twist and turn across geographic or political boundaries. Looking at taking more black residents into an expanded 2nd District, Denny said: ``It's going to take some real imagination to get this thing done right.''