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Task of redrawing U.S. House districts not as daunting as in 2000



In 2001, House Speaker Tim Ford of Baldwyn supported the plan of fellow Democrats to place much of suburban Jackson in a congressional district with northeast Mississippi.

Explaining the congressional redistricting effort featuring the Tupelo to Jackson district, Ford off-handedly dubbed it “the tornado plan” because of the way it looked on the map. Ford’s intent was not to sabotage the plan, and most likely opposition to the plan would have been intense regardless of what it was called, but the “tornado” moniker stuck and not in a good way.

Indeed, the moniker helped galvanize opposition.

The political landscape of the state was much different in 2001, though in hindsight the writing already was on the wall portending the rise of the Republican Party and fall of the Democratic Party.

As a result of the 2000 Census, Mississippi’s number of U.S. House seats was reduced from five to four — not because the state lost population but because it did not grow as much as other states. Legislators faced the difficult task of redrawing the districts, knowing they would be forced to pit two incumbent U.S. House members against each other.

Legislators could not complete the task after the 2000 Census. And legislators also failed to draw congressional districts based on the population shifts found by the 2010 Census. In both 2000 and 2010, the federal judiciary ended up drawing the districts.

Now, 10 years later, legislators again face the task of redrawing House districts. The preliminary census data was released last month. Both Senate Pro Tem Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, and Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, who are heading up their chambers’ redistricting efforts, have said they intend for the Legislature, not the courts, to redraw the congressional districts — early in the 2022 session.

They will not have much time. The qualifying deadline for candidates to run for the U.S. House is March 1.

Like in 2000 and 2010, Mississippi will have four U.S. House members. The state is not losing a U.S. House seat even though it was one of only three states to lose population, according to early census data.

In 2000, Mississippi’s five U.S. House members were Democrats Gene Taylor of the 5th District on the Gulf Coast; Ronnie Shows of the 4th District, which stretched from Jackson into southwest Mississippi; Bennie Thompson of the 2nd District, who was the state’s sole African American member representing most of the Delta; and Republicans Roger Wicker of the 1st District in north Mississippi; and Chip Pickering of the 3rd District, which included parts of the Jackson suburbs and much of east Mississippi.

The consensus was that Pickering and Shows would be thrown into the same district — in part because they had less experience than some of the other members and in part for the sake of the compactness of the districts.

Democrats, who controlled both the state House and Senate in the form of Speaker Ford and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, reasoned that it made sense to move the Republicans in high voter turnout Jackson suburbs in Madison and Rankin counties from Pickering to Wicker.

Democrats reasoned that the tornado plan would result in the re-election of Thompson and Taylor for their side and put the incumbents Shows and Pickering in a toss-up district. On the other hand, people from northeast Mississippi feared the tornado plan could make Wicker, a Tupelo resident, vulnerable to a Republican from the Jackson suburbs.

At any rate, Tuck, though a Democrat, would not go for the tornado plan.

The result was a November special session where the two redistricting chairs, Rep. Tommy Reynolds and Sen. Hob Bryan, essentially did nothing other than call meetings where they rejected each other’s offers on behalf of their leadership and then regaled those in attendance with their vast knowledge of literature, ranging from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to Faulkner to the Bible.

After seven days, the House leadership opted to end the special session. The Senate stayed in session, knowing that if one chamber refused to go home the other would be forced to return.

But then Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Mississippi’s last Democratic governor, stepped in to conclude the session based on a constitutional clause that said the governor could end the session if the two chambers could not agree.

With the Legislature not able to complete its task, the courts, both on the state and federal levels, got involved in a complex process that involved multiple high profile attorneys. The end result was a plan that looked nothing like a tornado where Pickering easily defeated Shows.

In 2003, Tuck, facing anger from Democrats, ran and won re-election as a Republican. In 2010, Taylor lost to Republican Steven Palazzo, leaving the Democrats with one U.S. House member: Thompson.

The upcoming effort to redistrict the House is not expected to result in such dramatic changes.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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