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VOL. 127 | NO. 5 | Monday, January 9, 2012

Cohen Expresses Concern Over Redistricting

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, got a closer look over the weekend at the proposed set of new district lines for his congressional district.

And Cohen said Monday, Jan. 9, that it wasn’t what he and other political observers of both parties first assumed it would be – a move of Republican territory in the Memphis suburbs from the Republican 7th District into the Republican 8th District.

The plan includes a big chunk of the Poplar Avenue corridor area in East Memphis proper.

“I feel very, very secure in re-election. I just feel a little traumatized in terms of not being able to represent people I’ve represented for over 20 years,” said Cohen, whose district as a Tennessee senator included the area before he was elected from the 9th U.S. Congressional district in 2006.

Shelby County would be represented by the 9th and 8th Congressional districts in the U.S. House, seats now held by Cohen and Republican Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Tenn., in rural West Tennessee, respectively.

The 7th Congressional district, currently represented by Republican Marsha Blackburn that now includes eastern Shelby County, would stop at the Fayette-Hardeman county line.

The Republican leadership said their rationale was that Shelby County was too large for a single congressional district but that the districts should avoid straddling the boundaries of the state’s three regions or divisions.

Shelby County is the only one of the state’s four major cities whose county would remain split among congressional districts.

Cohen said his later detailed look at the redistricting proposal, confirmed by Tennessee legislators he has conferred with, shows the 9th Congressional district would lose key precincts as far west as the University of Memphis campus.

“It’s a big chunk and it’s just not something that should be part of a rural district,” he said. “We had been led to believe … that Marsha was getting out of here and Fincher was taking her territory and I picked up Millington and that was it. That’s what I thought it was going to be. It turns out it’s not. It’s a lot of my Poplar corridor being taken and given to Fincher.”

Cohen talked with Tennessee Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville about the proposal. Norris was among the Republican leadership of the legislature that drafted the redistricting proposal the Tennessee Legislature will act on later this month.

“The entire Jewish community of which I’m the only Jewish Congress person ever elected in Tennessee – 95 percent of the Jewish community lives in that area and it would be taken out and put in Stephen Fincher’s district including all of the congregations,” Cohen said. “I couldn’t do constituent services for people I attend temple with or who I’ve known over the years. … It would make a real hardship on those people.”

Norris could not be reached for comment before press time. Cohen said he had talked with Norris Monday and that Norris expressed surprise at the exact boundary.

The existing split of Shelby County among three congressional districts has highlighted the split in the county’s political identity – a Democratic majority within the Memphis city limits and a Republican majority in the county outside the city limits.

Republicans have held the 7th district seat since Robin Beard’s election to the seat in the mid-1970s. And party leaders have long complained that the legislature’s Democratic majority in previous redistricting plans was trying to improve Democratic numbers with an oddly shaped district.

The proposal would move what is the state’s largest Republican base in a single county out of the 7th – the Shelby County GOP base.

Cohen has no quarrel with that move. His complaint is that the proposal takes a more substantial part of Memphis within the city limits.

“Memphis has never been divided,” he said. “Maybe a little sliver up in Frayser that (former Democratic U.S. Reps.) John Tanner and Ed Jones had and there was a little sliver in Parkway Village that (former Republican U.S. Rep.) Don Sundquist had. Other than that, Memphis has always been in one district. This will be the first time that has happened.”

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