One of the most hotly contested issues of the Democratic congressional primary race between Willie Herenton and Steve Cohen may be why the district lines are drawn the way they are.
The 9th Congressional District has been predominantly in Memphis for decades. In recent years it has grown to take in small parts of the suburbs. The lines could change again after the 2010 Census, when the Tennessee Legislature begins its usual reapportioning process.
Herenton and his supporters have repeatedly said the district’s borders were drawn to enhance the possibility of black representation in a congressional delegation that’s all white.
“I want you ... to help us to retrieve for our children what we lost in representation,” Herenton told a predominantly black crowd of 300 people Saturday at an East Memphis campaign rally.
To make the point even plainer, Herenton quoted radio talk show host and political blogger Thaddeus Matthews.
“Think about that. White folks, y’all got all 11. We just want one,” Herenton said to cheers from the crowd.
The legal concept and practice of drawing districts that reflect a majority black population, however, is not that simple. It’s rooted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Section II of the act requires that, in certain circumstances, districts be drawn to “give effect to the political preferences of the minority population.”
“This is actually a fairly technical area and it’s been the subject of a lot of litigation over the years, trying to interpret how Section II applies,” said attorney John Ryder.
Ryder is a Republican National Committeeman and chairman of the RNC’s redistricting committee. He is also the most experienced attorney locally of either party in the law and political effect of drawing district boundaries.
The clearest guideline for the creation of such a district is the 1986 Gingles case from North Carolina, which established three criteria or preconditions to create such a district:
- The minority population must be compact and contiguous.
- The minority population usually votes as a bloc.
- The white population usually votes as a bloc in such a way as to defeat the minority population’s candidate of choice.
Tennessee meets the first condition, Ryder said.
“The problem with the second two … conditions is that it’s hard to argue that the white majority votes in such a way as to defeat the preferred candidate of the minority population’s choice when we’ve elected Barack Obama as president,” he said, adding the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee in which Harold Ford Jr. got 49 percent of the vote in a statewide race won by Bob Corker.
“You just don’t see the kind of racial bloc voting that existed in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was originally passed,” Ryder said.
The first black political leader to claim what is now the 9th District seat did so in the 1974 midterm congressional elections, in a district drawn with no overt racial considerations.
Harold Ford Sr. was a Democratic state representative at the time, seeking to unseat Dan Kuykendall, the white Republican congressman from Memphis in what was then the 8th Congressional District.
After the 1970 census, the majority Democrat Tennessee Legislature redrew congressional district lines to cede to Republicans seats in the majority GOP eastern end of the state, Ryder said. They also moved to create more Democratic districts in West Tennessee by splitting the Republicans outside Memphis between the 8th and 7th districts.
“As a result in 1972, those seats elected Republicans,” Ryder said. “They got a little too clever and overreached. What was then the 8th district was drawn to be a Democrat district, not necessarily a black district.”
Ford upset Kuykendall in the year of Watergate, when Republican incumbents were imperiled by the scandal and the tarnished presidency of Richard Nixon. Kuykendall also underestimated Ford, who held the seat for 22 years. His son, Harold Ford Jr., continued for another 10 years.
By then, black voters were considered the majority of registered voters in Memphis. The official numbers from the Shelby County Election Commission by themselves are less conclusive.
Voter registration statistics as of Jan. 31 show there are 412,433 voters in the city of Memphis. Of that number, 183,443 are black and 96,686 are white. Another 132,304 are listed as “other,” meaning they are of another racial group or did not indicate their race on voter registration forms.
The 2000 U.S Census puts the city’s population at 670,902 with 61.4 percent black and 34.4 percent white. Of the total population counted, 27.9 percent were younger than 18.
Ryder said the central question that was already present when Cohen was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2008 is who is the preferred candidate of the black population.
“Steve Cohen has obviously been successful in obtaining votes from the black population. I think he can make a legitimate claim to be the preferred candidate of choice,” Ryder added. “What it means is the Voting Rights Act certainly led to the creation of a majority black district, and that means that the black population in the 9th District has the opportunity to elect its preferred candidate of choice. In our political system, all players are free to compete to become that preferred candidate.”
Herenton and those putting together his campaign strategy point out that Cohen won the Democratic primary the first time in a large field with numerous black contenders. In 2008, Nikki Tinker returned from that pack for a second try in a smaller field of four challengers. Cohen won easily and Tinker later expressed regret over a controversial campaign strategy that stressed race.
The message to black voters from Herenton’s camp is a tacit admission that Cohen was elected with black votes.
“It’s the only place in Tennessee that you can elect somebody that looks like you,” Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism said at Saturday’s rally. “We’ve got to clean up what we messed up. … You should want the same, and if you don’t, something’s wrong.”...