In Mississippi, New Republican Power Collides With Black Quest for Seats
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
"We have come a long, long way," he said, according to the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson . "I'm just as proud as I can be to say we're fighting about everything but race."
But his elation did not last. Soon, partisan jockeying in the Republican-held Senate doomed the Democratic House plan that Blackmon praised. The Senate blocked the House plan from becoming law. It also voted for a Republican-friendly Senate map.
|Where black representation lags|
These are the 10 states with the largest gaps between the percentage of African Americans in the population and the percentage of state legislative seats held by African Americans.
|Source: National Black Caucus of State Legislatures and the National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Census Bureau|
With elections for governor and the legislature looming this fall, the standoff between Democrats and Republicans over new maps never was resolved. Lawmakers went home without a deal. Now, the task of redistricting likely will fall to federal judges.
Although lawsuits and racial tensions in redistricting are nothing new to Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of blacks in the country, the hardball politics of a two-party system certainly is.
Before recent GOP takeovers, Democrats had enjoyed full control of Mississippi government since the 19th century. Now, Republicans hold the governorship and a majority in the state Senate. And their priorities make the goal of electing additional black lawmakers even more difficult. The new dynamics are especially frustrating for African American legislators who felt they were on the verge of a new era of racial equity in the legislative redistricting process.
"The fight here is a good fight, because it is a political party fight," says Byron D'Andra Orey, chair of the political science department at Jackson State University, who studies black representation in state legislatures. "It is not a race-based fight."
Not everyone agrees. "Race is party in Mississippi," says Carroll Rhodes, a lawyer for the NAACP, which is suing the state over the redistricting process. "Partisanship is a euphemism. So they're not saying race, but it is race."
In drawing new districts, legislators in any state must take into account several variables. First is the raw population data. All districts must have equal populations. Then, there is federal law that requires maps to protect the voting strength of minorities. And, of course, politics is always a factor, too. Partisanship increases it exponentially. For Mississippi, that resulted in a showdown between the two legislative chambers.
During remap sessions in previous decades, the two Mississippi chambers traditionally deferred to each other in drafting maps for their own districts.
But the Senate did not go along with that tradition this year. Republican Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate and is running for governor in the fall, entered the fray by proposing a political map on his own, rather than deferring to senators to sketch out their own districts. His map sought to capitalize on Republicans' newfound control of the chamber, which they gained earlier this year because of Democratic defections. He also parted with custom by blocking the House proposal for its own districts, the one that gave Blackmon so much satisfaction.
House Speaker William McCoy, a Democrat, balked when Bryant tried to convene a conference committee with members of both parties and both chambers to re-negotiate the entire package. Both sides refused to blink, and legislators went home last week without anything being decided.
"We have been waiting patiently for three weeks to resolve this issue of redistricting with the House," Bryant said in a statement . "I am not going to waste any more taxpayer money without hope of a compromise with the House (Democratic) leaders."
State Representative Thomas Reynolds, the Democrat who headed the House redistricting efforts, says he doubted Bryant ever intended to reach a compromise. "I think there was an effort from the very beginning to put the issue in court," Reynolds says, "so that's where it is."
A more Republican-leaning map could jeopardize McCoy's reelection as speaker, which, in turn, could help Bryant's agenda advance if he wins his race for governor. Two years ago, McCoy won his election for speaker against a more conservative Democrat by a single vote. He prevailed with the overwhelming support of the black caucus, which accounts for half of the chamber's Democrats.
The Mississippi NAACP did not even wait until the end of this year's state legislative session to file suit against the process. The civil rights organization went to court last month, claiming that some sort of new map was constitutionally necessary before this year's elections could proceed. The NAACP argued that the existing legislative districts were out of date and therefore violated constitutional protections that all votes count equally.
In 1991, legislators passed a new map on schedule, but the U.S. Justice Department ruled that it diluted minority voting power and invalidated it. With no time to produce an alternative, the courts ordered legislators to run in their existing districts — but for a single, one-year term. Once they were seated for the one-year term, their first order of business was to come up with a new map for the rest of the decade — or hand the job over to the courts.
Within two weeks, lawmakers passed the same plan proposed by the black plaintiffs who sued in the first place. The legislators used those districts to run in 1992 and then again on a regular schedule throughout the 1990s.