Democrats

New TNJ alert: New AG, Democratic infighting, and another rejection of loosening term limits

AG applicants pose for a photo outside the state Supreme Court chamber on Aug. 9, 2022. From left are Bill Young, Jonathan Skrmetti, Culver Schmid, Don Cochran, Mike Dunavant, and Jerome Cochran.

The latest print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Supreme Court appoints Gov. Bill Lee’s top legal adviser Skrmetti as new AG.

— Skrmetti in public interview posited creating a new unit to handle lawsuits against the federal government, acknowledged “hunger” for more formal legal opinions.

— From the campaign trail: Democrats fight over text message flap, tiebreaker options in Cocke County, and Memphis voters don’t want their elected officials to serve more than two terms.

— Obituary: Larry Wallace, TBI director in wake of bingo gambling corruption probe.

Also: Lee joins GOP governors blasting climate bill that includes tax credits for electric vehicles (many of which will be built in Tennessee), constitutional amendment campaigns ramp up activity, and diverging fortunes for write-in campaigns.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Democratic Rep. Torrey Harris charged with domestic assault, theft

Rep. Torrey Harris, top right, and fellow House Democrats attend a Senate hearing. on Feb. 2, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis) has been charged with domestic assault and theft. His first court date is scheduled for Oct. 10, well after the House District 91 primary in which he faces Democratic challenger Barbara Farmer-Tolbert.

Harris was arrested on Sunday in Nashville after an ex-boyfriend told police the lawmaker had scratched his arm while trying to prevent him from leaving his apartment. Harris had been at the home to return the man’s dog after a pet-sitting stint. The former partner left the apartment and found on his return that Harris had taken the dog, a gaming console, computer, earphones, and other items. Harris later confirmed to police he had taken the dog but told officers the other items he had taken had been gifts he had purchased.

The assault charge is a misdemeanor, while the alleged theft is a felony.

Harris said he plans to plead not guilty. Here’s his full statement:

I first want to say thank you for all the support and to those who have reached out during this time.

I have retained legal counsel and myself and the team are working diligently to cooperate with the investigation. I maintain my innocence and will plead not guilty to the charges. I know that at the end of this I will be cleared of all allegations.

My focus will remain on serving the people as it always has been, but my ask is that if someone you know – loved one, friend, or neighbor is battling with mental health, that you help them as best as you can. Never deter from supporting those who need us even at their toughest moments.

As for me, I want to say thank you for all the calls and to those who have reached out during this time. This has been a lived example that will help me better help those I serve. Trust me, I have already noticed steps in policy that lawmakers like myself must work to improve throughout the justice system.

Over the next couple of weeks you will learn more about this matter and I look forward to moving on after it is all said and done.

Campbell says she has raised nearly $300K for Democratic bid for 5th District seat

State Sen. Heidi Campbell says she has raised nearly $300,000 for her campaign to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a fellow Nashville Democrat, in the 5th Congressional District. The seat was redrawn this year to split the capital city into three heavily-Republican districts.

Here’s the release from the Campbell campaign:

NASHVILLE—Tennessee Sen. Heidi Campbell’s campaign for the 5th Congressional District announced raising $297,630 in less than three months of fundraising. 

The campaign says it secured contributions from nearly 1,000 donors at the FEC second quarter deadline on June 30. 

“Sen. Campbell is building a campaign that’s committed to solving problems and making life better for Middle Tennessee families,” said campaign treasurer Chip Forrester. “Donors, from the grassroots up, are showing their support and we’re confident we will have the resources this fall to present a clear contrast between Sen. Campbell’s hopeful vision for our country and whichever ideological agenda stumbles out of the GOP primary.”

Tennessee reaction to Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade

Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision set off shockwaves around the country. Here is some reaction in Tennessee:

Today’s landmark Supreme Court decision marks the beginning of a hopeful, new chapter for our country. After years of heartfelt prayer and thoughtful policy, America has an historic opportunity to support women, children and strong families while reconciling the pain and loss caused by Roe v. Wade. We have spent years preparing for the possibility that authority would return to the states, and Tennessee’s laws will provide the maximum possible protection for both mother and child. In the coming days, we will address the full impacts of this decision for Tennessee. — Gov. Bill Lee.

For too long, abortion policy in this nation has been controlled by the federal judiciary. Now, once again, the voters of the individual states will have the ability to make policy through democratic means. In Tennessee, the voters have already made their views known through the passage of a constitutional amendment that makes clear that no right to abortion is contained in our constitution. With passage of our trigger law and a comprehensive heartbeat bill, Tennessee’s General Assembly has been well prepared for this day. — State Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge).

This is a victory for democracy. For the first time in almost 50 years, the voters and their elected representatives will have control over this issue rather than unelected judges, and we applaud that. This decision will allow our Tennessee laws to reflect our Tennessee values that unborn children should be protected by law and that every person deserves the right to be born. – Tennessee Right to Life President Stacy Dunn.

This decision is a direct assault on the rights of Tennesseans. The Court’s interpretation of the constitution on this issue is flawed and a direct insertion of political activism on the highest court in the land. This decision made by a conservative majority on the court, will empower a radical majority serving in state legislatures across the country. Politicians will be even more emboldened by this decision to impose their most restrictive views on us. Today, an essential and lifesaving freedom was discarded by a court installed to protect it. – Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling ends a 50-year-long national tragedy that deprived 63 million innocent human beings of life. For decades, Republicans have fought to advance and uphold the pro-life and pro-family values held by an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans. Today, we celebrate a momentous victory. We applaud the justices for their wisdom in recognizing a vulnerable baby still in its mother’s womb is a precious life worthy of protection. Tennessee House Republicans continue our unwavering commitment to fight for families and defend the defenseless. – State House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland).

The Supreme Court’s unprecedented and unconscionable decision today rolls the clock back nearly 50 years on our fundamental rights, forcing anyone who becomes pregnant in Tennessee into second class status. And politicians won’t stop here. The same anti-abortion extremists seeking to control the bodies of pregnant people are coming for our right to access birth control and gender-affirming care, marry who we love, and vote,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg.

I believe we have a moral duty to protect unborn children who cannot protect themselves. Today is a consequential day, not only for those who believe that all life is a precious gift, but also for American democracy and the rule of law. This decision doesn’t ban abortion—it simply returns decision-making on abortion to the people. That’s how it should be in a republic—matters not addressed by the Constitution should be decided by the people through their elected representatives, not by nine unelected judges in Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Nashville).

Having worked alongside Tennesseans to protect the innocent lives of unborn children for years, I applaud today’s Supreme Court ruling. Despite false claims from the left, this decision will not ban abortion. Instead, it returns the decision to the states and empowers state legislatures with more flexibility to craft policy through the democratic process. – U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood).

Abortion is a complicated and very personal decision. And I personally believe that we don’t spend enough time on finding solutions to the reasons why some people have to have abortions. However, this ruling means that in Tennessee, all abortions will be criminalized, including for victims of rape and incest. Women should have the right to make their own, personal healthcare decisions. This is an unfortunate decision based on politics instead of established law and, according to the vast majority of polls, the will of people. — State House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis).

Democrat Stewart to retire from state House

Rep Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) speaks to reporters on the House floor in Nashville on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Mike Stewart, a former House Democratic caucus chair from Nashville, announced he is retiring from the General Assembly. Under initial Republican redistricting plans, Stewart was going to be drawn together with fellow Democrat John Ray Clemmons. But the majority party relented in a last-minute change, leaving the two incumbents in their own districts.

Here’s Stewart’s statement:

NASHVILLE — Today Mike Stewart announced in a Facebook Live appearance on the Tennessee Holler that he is not running for the state house seat he has held since 2008.  “I consider the opportunity to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly as one of the great honors of my life and I am grateful to all the people who have helped me along the way,” Stewart said.

Stewart intends to shift his political energy to protecting America’s democratic system, which is under serious internal attack for the first time since the 1850’s.  “We are facing a threat that I never expected to deal with during my lifetime; a former President and his followers attempting to invalidate a Presidential election and with it the system we use in this country to allow the people to choose their leaders.  I was one of those who mistakenly thought that President Trump was just being a sore loser when he made claims of election fraud; now it has been revealed that those claims were part of an orchestrated effort to cancel the 2020 election, thwart the will of the people and retain political control illegally.  It is the sort of thing that I expected to see only in other countries and in science fiction movies,” Stewart observed.

“As a lawyer and a person who has been deeply involved in elections for many years, I hope to do what I can to protect the democratic process in the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections,” Stewart observed.  Specifically, I will be working with leaders around the nation to ensure that polling places are adequately monitored to prevent false claims of fraud, working to ensure that state legislatures are not controlled by anti-democratic leaders, and working to develop legal strategies to check those who continue to make false statements undermining our system of elections.”  

“Many citizens I’m talking to are feeling overwhelmed and defeated.  They grew up in the world’s most stable and admired democracy, and now see a former President, as well as Senators and Congressmen, debasing themselves on national television repeating claims they know are entirely untrue.  I plan to do everything I can to ensure that such people are not allowed to tamper further with our sacred system of elections so that the people have a fair opportunity to repudiate such irresponsible and, ultimately, immoral leadership.  Many are talking about the threat; it is time to develop concrete plans to respond to it on a state-by-state level.”

Stewart added, “I’d like to close this chapter by saying it has been a privilege to serve the people in House District 52 and I intend to continue fighting for you, as well as the rest of the country, in my new role.”

Lee gives preview of State of the State address, Dems deliver prebuttal

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is giving a preview of his fourth State of the State address on Monday evening. Democrats, meanwhile, are giving a prebuttal to the governor’s priories for the year.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee released the following speech excerpts ahead of his fourth State of the State Address that will be delivered tonight at 6 p.m. CT in the House Chamber of the Tennessee State Capitol.

The 2022 address will pay homage to 225 years of statehood by building on the state slogan “Tennessee – America at Its Best”.

Defining “America at Its Best”

Today, our country faces challenges of a different kind, but I believe now more than ever, Tennessee embodies America at Its Best. And in order to ensure that, I am proposing a budget and America at Its Best policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism.

Guarding Freedom

In recent history, big government has attempted to take over society instead of contributing to it. That’s no way to live, and Tennessee has pushed back on that big government. In fact, Tennessee has recently been ranked as one of the top five freest states in the country.

Protecting Life, Supporting Families

My office has proposed and supported some of the soundest pro-life legislation in the country. Thanks to our partners in the legislature, we passed thoughtful laws that protected the unborn and supported expecting mothers. If the federal courts return full authority to the states, Tennessee’s laws will automatically provide the maximum possible protection and offer a glimmer of redemption as America reconciles our troubled past. I believe Tennessee can be a major part of that reconciliation by offering both hope and resources to families in crisis.

Fiscal Stewardship

We pay a staggering $900 million dollars per day in national debt interest payments. This is a bipartisan problem working within a broken system, but states with balanced budgets offer a guide to what could be if Washington would just act. While Washington saddles our kids with trillions of dollars of debt, Tennessee’s strong fiscal position allows us to instead invest on their behalf.

Powering the Economy

Make no mistake – Tennessee is “Working People USA” and we will do whatever it takes to train and retrain Tennesseans so that both our businesses and our families can thrive.

And here is the video response from House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville:

Dems submit congressional redistricting plan

Legislative Democrats are submitting a congressional redistricting plan that would avoid breaking up Nashville. The proposal would also reimagine the 4th District as being comprised of fast-growing suburban Williamson, Rutherford, and Wilson counties, while ceding most of its current rural population to the 6th and 3rd districts.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Middle Tennessee’s fast-growing suburban communities would elect their own member of the U.S. House of Representatives under a congressional map proposed by state Democrats on Monday.

While most of the map will look familiar, Democrats say their nine-seat congressional plan improves representation by keeping almost every city and county whole while also better connecting communities that have shared socio-economic interests — like Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains, rural West Tennessee and booming suburban Middle Tennessee communities along I-840.

“People all over the state shared the same message: please keep our community together,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, the Democratic caucus chairwoman. “People want their elected officials to be responsive to the needs of their community. So, in addition to drawing districts that are near identical by population, we are proposing districts with deep community connections and shared needs—like housing, healthcare, education, transportation and job creation.”

The biggest change recommended by Democrats is a new configuration for the 4th Congressional District that combines three Middle Tennessee counties, Williamson, Wilson, and most of Rutherford, along with the cities of Hendersonville and Spring Hill. The current district lines sprawl across southern Tennessee from Nashville’s southeastern border nearly to North Carolina.

“The 840 corridor encompassing Williamson, Rutherford & Wilson are facing the shared challenges of explosive growth, infrastructure and services spread thin, alongside effective regional coordination and collaboration. The future of these communities is inherently linked together regardless of county lines or city lines,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the minority leader in the Senate. “The congressional lines is one way we can recognize and respond to that reality. It’s not only good for these communities experiencing rapid growth to have common leadership, but also more advantageous for other regions to address the different but equally complicated economic, education and health decisions they face.”

Democrats in the legislature held five meetings across the state and participated in dozens more meetings to gather public input from communities across the state. This proposed congressional map incorporates feedback from people who spoke at those hearings and submitted public comment in other ways.

“This map proposal is a reflection of real people and the concerns that are shared by underserved communities across the state,” said Rep. Karen Camper, the minority leader in the House. “We look forward to presenting their ideas and policy priorities to the General Assembly.”

Before the 2022 election cycle, the Tennessee General Assembly, by law, must draw political boundaries so that every congressional district in the state has an equal number of people.

The community districting process — also called redistricting or reapportionment — happens every 10 years after federal census officials release data showing the population of every city, town and county in the nation.

A good district map reflects a whole community or a community of shared interests, such as a city, neighborhood or group of people who have common policy concerns that would benefit from being drawn into a single district.

While Republicans who control legislature have so far kept their proposed congressional maps a secret, Democrats are making their draft congressional proposal available for public comment ahead of the next legislative session.

“We know Republicans are cutting deals on district lines behind closed doors and playing partisan politics with their maps, but that’s not going to stop us from engaging Tennesseans in a good faith process,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “We welcome input from the community because we want fair maps and a healthy democracy.”

To offer feedback on the congressional maps proposed by state Democrats, email maps@tndemocrats.org..

1st Congressional District

The 1st Congressional District proposal includes 11 counties from the current map: Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Jefferson, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, Washington.

Additions: Claiborne, Grainger, Union and a portion of Campbell County just west of the city of LaFollette.

Other changes: Sevier County shifts to the 2nd Congressional District.

2nd Congressional District

The 2nd Congressional District proposal includes Knox, Anderson and Sevier counties as well as the city of Maryville in Blount County.

Knox County residents offered public comment making the case for including both Anderson and Sevier counties in a district with Knoxville due to the shared interests in those communities.

For example, the Great Smoky Mountains and Knoxville are tied together through tourism, and Knoxville’s innovation sector is intrinsically linked to the science being performed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

3rd Congressional District

This map would move the 3rd Congressional District into Tennessee’s southeast corner—rather than its current configuration which extends from downtown Chattanooga to the Kentucky border.

What’s in: Bradley, Hamilton, Loudon, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Polk, Rhea, Roane counties, the city of Maryville and part of Blount County.

What’s out: Everything north of Knox County — Scott, Campbell, Union, Morgan and Anderson counties.

4th Congressional District

The plan’s reimagined 4th Congressional District undergoes the biggest change to create a district for Middle Tennessee’s fast-growing suburban counties along the I-840 bypass.

Their shared status as booming suburban communities and similar growth-related needs make a strong case for these areas to be included in a single district.

What’s in: Williamson and Wilson counties, most of Rutherford County, as well as the city of Hendersonville and the city of Spring Hill, which straddles the Williamson-Maury County line.

5th Congressional District

Nashville-Davidson County is about 50,000 people short of qualifying to be its own congressional district.

To complete a full district, this plan draws from public comments that asked mapmakers to link Nashville to neighboring cities that are confronting similar challenges.

What’s in: Davidson County, the city of La Vergne, the city of Goodlettsville, which straddles the Davidson-Sumner County line, and Millersville, which shares a long border with the city of Nashville along I-65.

What’s out: Dickson and Cheatham counties.

6th Congressional

This plan expands Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District to the south, putting the shared interests of rural communities at the forefront.

What’s in: Bledsoe, Cannon, Clay, Coffee, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Franklin, Grundy, Jackson, Lincoln, Macon, Marion, Morgan, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Scott, Sequatchie, Smith, Trousdale, Van Buren, Warren, White counties as well as portions of Sumner County and Campbell County.

What’s out: Wilson County.

7th Congressional District

This proposed map includes most areas of the current district, including Clarksville and Columbia, but it shifts away from counties in West Tennessee. Instead, the Tennessee River serves as a western boundary for most of district.

What’s in: Bedford, Cheatham, Dickson, Giles, Hickman, Houston, Humphreys, Lawrence, Lewis, Marshall, Maury, Montgomery, Perry, Robertson, Stewart, Wayne counties and most of Maury and Hardin counties.

What’s out: Benton, Chester, Decatur, Hardeman, Henderson and McNairy counties.

8th Congressional District

The 8th Congressional District would become the rural West Tennessee district. Bordered mostly by the Tennessee River on the east and the Mississippi River on the west.

What’s in: Benton, Carroll, Chester, Crockett, Decatur, Dyer, Fayette, Gibson, Hardeman, Haywood, Henry, Lake, Lauderdale, Madison, McNairy, Obion and Tipton counties, as well as a portion of Hardin County and the Shelby County cities of Arlington, Collierville, Germanton Lakeland and Millington.

What’s out: Parts of East Memphis.

9th Congressional District

In this map, the entire city of Memphis is included within the boundary of the 9th Congressional District.

To complete the district, the whole city of Bartlett is also included as well as some unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

Democratic Sen. Robinson convicted in federal fraud case

A federal jury has found Democratic state Sen. Katrina Robinson of Memphis guilty of four counts of wire fraud.

Katrina Robinson (Image credit: Tennessee General Assemlby)

Robinson’s prospects at trial had been looking up after the judge last week granted a defense motion to acquit her of 15 of the 20 counts she had been charged with. But the trial proceeded this week on the remainder of the case and the freshman senator was convicted after the jury of eight women and four men deliberated Thursday for five hours.

The dismissed counts include allegations Robinson had illegally spent grant money on her 2018 Senate campaign, legal fees for her divorce, and contributions to her retirement account.

What remained of the more than $600,000 prosecutors had alleged Robinson misspent were two counts of wire fraud related to $2,326 she paid an artist through a booking agent and $1,158 that went to a wedding makeup artist. Also surviving the judge’s ruling were three counts of wire fraud alleging Robinson made fraudulent representations in annual performance reports from 2017 through 2019. The jury acquitted Robinson of any wrongdoing on her 2018 report.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) called on Robinson to resign.

“While Senator Robinson’s convictions did not stem from actions taken while in office, they are nevertheless very serious,” McNally said in a statement. “As public servants, we are held to a higher standard. My personal opinion is that it would be in the best interest of the state and her constituents for Senator Robinson to step down at this time.”

Robinson faced up to 20 years in prison for the full set of wire fraud charges before she was acquitted of most of them. Sentencing is scheduled for January.

Memphis Councilman Smiley announces Democratic bid for governor

JB Smiley Jr. (Image credit: City of Memphis)

Memphis Councilman JB Smiley Jr. is officially joining the 2022 governor’s race in Tennessee. Smiley announced his bid for the Democratic nomination on Wednesday, joining Nashville physician Jason Martin, Greensboro pastor Casey Nicholson, and Memphis activist Carnita Atwater. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has yet to draw a primary opponent for his reelection bid.

Here’s the release from the Smiley campaign:

Memphis, TN — Today, Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. announced his campaign for Governor at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis and through the release of a launch video.

Here are excerpts from Democrat JB Smiley’s remarks:

“After dedicating the last several months to listening to Tennesseans across the state, it’s incredibly clear to me that we’re all feeling the discomfort of failed policies and inaction from our Governor. Tennesseans deserve better. Tennesseans demand better. And today I’m excited and humbled to announce I am running for governor to help guide us to a better Tennessee.”

“I truly believe that we are more alike than we are different. I believe that we all want to create more job opportunities for our next generation. We all want equitable access to healthcare – whether you live in an urban community or a rural part of our state. We all want better roads, stronger bridges, reliable internet to connect us to the rest of the world and each other. We all want better for our children, our families, and our future.”

“I decided to run for Governor because right now – we have too many gun shots fired, not enough COVID shots given and too few shots for our young people to reach their potential.”

“As Governor, I’ll reduce crime by investing in robust community policing, and I’ll fund prevention programs focused on those most likely to commit violent crime, because everyone deserves to be safe in their homes and communities.”

“I’ll encourage folks across the state to do right by each-other. That means getting vaccinated. And I’ll ensure Tennesseans have access to health care no matter where they live.“

“And I will prioritize giving our young people a real shot to succeed — with state-of-the-art vocational training in every high school and partnerships with our business leaders to create pathways to the jobs that will help our young people stay here in Tennessee”

“So today I’m announcing my campaign for Governor and I’m inviting all of you to come and go with me to a better Tennessee.”

Background on JB

A native Memphian, JB Smiley Jr. is an attorney and a member of the Memphis City Council. The son of a social worker and a Bronze Star army soldier, JB Smiley, Jr. knows the value of hard work and a healthy, supportive community.

After JB’s collegiate and semi-professional basketball career, he pursued a legal education, and later, a political career. But his life in serving the most vulnerable, started from a young age.

As his father taught him to “never forget the bridge that brought you over,” JB decided to stay in the region to attend college and then law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. While in law school, JB served as a member of the Law Review, Moot Court Board, and as Vice President of the Black Law Students Association. JB successfully passed Arkansas and the Tennessee Bar exams, while writing his first book, Born With It: Unleashing Your Greatness.

In 2017, in Memphis, JB started his law practice, Smiley & Associates, PLLC. The following year, JB was named to Memphis Flyer’s Top 20, Under 30 class. During that same year, JB was appointed policy advisor to the Shelby County Clerk and served in such capacity until his election to the Memphis City Council in October. As a council member, JB is Chair of the Public Works, Transportation, and General Services Committee and the council liaison for the Urban Art Commission. On the City Council, JB has delivered for his community, implementing the Memphis Academy of Civic Engagement, the Memphis Police Department Transparency Portal, and amending the Eviction Set Out Ordinance.

In his spare time, JB likes to play basketball, work out, binge watch Netfilix shows, and keep his dog, Mighty Mouse, and his nephew, Bryson Maxwell Smiley, smiling!

Dems call for transparency, community input for redistricting process

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) attends a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With raw census data scheduled to be released on Thursday, Tennessee Democrats are calling for transparency in the once-per-decade redistricting process.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee communities should have a voice in mapping the state’s political future for the next decade, lawmakers said Tuesday in a letter to legislative leaders, and citizens should not have to wait until 2022 to see new proposed district lines.

The process of drawing new electoral boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative districts only happens once every 10 years after the U.S. Census releases local data.

While many states have laws that require political boundaries to be drawn with community input, Tennessee’s process is controlled entirely by the majority party in the legislature.

In a letter dated Aug. 10, Democratic leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly urged the Republican speakers of both chambers to commit to an open and transparent process that provides citizens with opportunities to offer feedback on proposed maps.

“Perhaps more than any other single decision, the drawing of district boundaries will shape the policies adopted by the state over the next decade,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe Tennesseans understand their communities and deserve a voice in how their communities will be represented.”

The letter was signed by ​​Democratic leaders Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) as well as both caucus chairs, Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Rep. Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville).

In the letter, lawmakers called on the speakers to follow three community-driven principles for drawing Tennessee’s new legislative districts:

1. Maintain an open and transparent process. “Citizens deserve a districting process they can understand and trust, as well as information about how they will be able to engage with key decisionmakers. In many states, this process includes a special committee that travels the state hosting public meetings, as well as a website that provides the public with the same updated information available to the legislative decisionmakers.”

2. Offer public and community engagement opportunities. “Citizens deserve opportunities, prior to our regular legislative session, to engage on this issue. We would request that a series of public hearings be held across the state, and that these hearings also be broadcast online, and that the General Assembly employ digital tools to permit the public to offer input and even submit district map proposals.”

3. Seek public input on the first drafts of maps this fall. “Throughout the nation, it’s become common for citizens and communities to review proposed maps well in advance of final adoption. We would propose making first drafts available to the public this fall in an easily usable format, with updates released prior to any formal consideration. Community leaders and members of the public need time to review maps, offer input, and even suggest or request changes prior to any community districting legislation being voted upon.”

“The community districting process should be among the most public endeavors that our state government undertakes. The General Assembly has access to the technology to make this process transparent and even interactive,” the Democratic leaders wrote. “Far from slowing down the legislative work of drawing new district lines, we believe such efforts would not only build trust but also lead to a stronger final product.”

On Aug. 12, the ​​Census Bureau<https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/news-conference-2020-census-redistricting-data.html> will publish the first local level results from the 2020 Census, including data on race, ethnicity and the voting-age population.

Changes in population and demographics that have taken place over a decade will be used to draw new federal and state district maps — roughly equal in population.

Earlier this year, the nonpartisan group Think Tennessee<https://www.thinktennessee.org/research/elections-civic-life/> wrote about the benefits of a more public and transparent community districting process.

“Opening a window into Tennessee’s redistricting process to allow citizens to meaningfully participate would enhance their trust in the system,” Think wrote. “In a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of the country on voter registration and turnout, redistricting is a key opportunity to deepen civic engagement.”

Think also says Tennesseans historically have had fewer opportunities for public participation, and less access to draft district maps, than people in most other states.

“While most states proactively seek public input in the redistricting process, Tennesseans’ opportunities for engagement previously have been limited to submitting draft maps and sharing their opinions with their legislators,” the nonprofit wrote.