Karen Camper

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.

Democrat Camper, Republican Hicks test positive for COVID-19

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and House Finance Subcommittee Chair Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) have tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) speaks tp reporters on Nov. 25, 2018, after her elected as House minority leader. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Camper felt ill during the start of last week’s special session, but an initial test did not detect the virus. She went home to Memphis as a precaution, where another test determined she had been infected. Camper is resting and recuperating at home, according to a statement from the House Democratic Caucus.

Hicks attended last week’s special session and was among several Republicans seen interacting with others without a mask. He works at Rogersville City School, which last week announced it would delay opening after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and while it awaited test results on a third.

The two positive tests follow the hospitalization this week of Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) due to COVID-19. Carter had skipped the special session along with former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who said he stayed home because had been exposed to the coronavirus. Casada wouldn’t tell The Tennessean whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.

Lee signs proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee sits in a bus at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis after signing a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee traveled to Memphis on Sunday to sign a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee. The bill to honor Parks on the anniversary of her 1955 arrest for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., was sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Karen Camper (both D-Memphis).

Lee called Parks “an inspiring human being, who did so much for so many, so [I’m] proud to be working with the legislature today to honor her.”

Lee got into hot water last summer over signing a proclamation honoring slave trader and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, as required by a state law dating back to 1969. Lee has said he hopes to change that law next legislative session.

Parks is a better example of historical figures the state’s should be honoring with proclamations, Lee told reporters Sunday.

“It’s important that we recognize folks who have made major contributions for civil rights in this country and to change the trajectory for civil rights,” Lee said.

“Whenever we can make proclamations about inspiring individuals who are to be celebrated — and that’s someone who is celebrated by everyone  — that’s the  kind of thing we need to be doing in this state.”

 

Camper elected minority leader in Tennessee House

Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) speaks tp reporters on Nov. 25, 2018, after her elected as House minority leader. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Fellow Democrats have elected state Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis to be the House minority leader for the 111th General Assembly. Camper is the first African-American to be elected the chamber’s Democratic leader.

Camper will also be the Democrats’ nominee for speaker. The Army veteran has served in the House since 2008.

Camper defeated Reps. Bo Mitchell of Nashville and Johnnie Shaw of Bolivar for the position.

“I am honored by the faith the caucus has shown in me and I pledge to bring the type of aggressive leadership needed to advance legislation that promotes the Democratic agenda, such as quality health care and economic opportunities for all Tennesseans,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville was unopposed in his re-election as Democratic caucus chair. Democrats hold 26 of the 99 seats in the House.

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