Senate redistrict plan unveiled; Bryant says he has his own

Published 12:08 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2011

JACKSON — A proposal to redraw Mississippi’s 52 Senate districts — including Vicksburg-based District 23 — quickly gained some support when unveiled Monday, but it could be derailed with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant’s plan to introduce his own revamped map.

A remapping plan approved by a redistricting committee of senators and House members shows the district represented by state Sen. Briggs Hopson III picking up more of Yazoo County to make up for population losses districtwide. It would continue to include all of Warren and Issaquena counties and add precincts in Yazoo City, Holly Bluff and Benton.

“The good thing is that it didn’t really change a whole lot,” Hopson said of the joint committee’s proposal, which now moves to the Senate Elections Committee before going to the full Senate. “It’s a good, contiguous, well-drawn-up district overall.”

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Hopson wouldn’t comment on the fate of an alternate map pushed by Bryant, the Senate’s presiding officer. The battle potentially pits Bryant, who’s running for governor, against the Republican-led redistricting committee he appointed.

Lawmakers say it’s unprecedented for a lieutenant governor to circumvent the redistricting committee and release a separate map. Traditionally, the presiding officer supports the plan created by the committee.

Legislators also are redrawing the 122 districts in the House to reflect population changes in the 2010 Census. Both chambers are working on maps that would increase representation in fast-growing DeSoto County, just south of Memphis and account for population losses in the economically struggling Delta.

Maps OK’d for the House show Warren County with five representatives instead of four, with communities around Vicksburg sliced and moved around to account for countywide population loss.

District 55 Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, would lose Kings and parts of north Vicksburg to District 51 Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, and Eagle Lake to District 49 Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville. It does stretch farther southeast into nonmunicipal Warren County to pick up more of the Tingleville precinct. District 54, represented by Republican Alex Monsour, would lose Issaquena to Bailey, the Redwood and 3-61 precincts to Straughter and much of the Yokena precinct to District 85 Rep. Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson. It would gain precincts in northeast Warren County currently represented by Republican Phillip Gunn and in southwest Yazoo County.

Bryant in a statement said the Joint Reapportionment Committee’s map is “the beginning of the process” of redistricting. He did not respond to an interview request from The Associated Press.

Bryant said on Marshall Ramsey’s radio show on Supertalk Mississippi that he has been working with Republican political consultant Josh Gregory to draw his own map. Gregory helped revamp Mississippi’s congressional districts after the 2000 Census.

Flaggs issued a statement this morning “pleading” with Bryant not to trump the joint committee’s proposed map, citing the cost of holding another election next year — repeating a scenario that followed redistricting after the 1990 Census.

The biggest differences between the committee’s plan and Bryant’s are expected in the Pine Belt area in and around Hattiesburg and in the Jackson area.

“I continue to oppose the gerrymandered district within the Pine Belt area that collapses a Republican district only to create one controlled by Democrats,” Bryant said.

For the past decade, the Hattiesburg area has had three Senate districts, all currently held by white Republicans. One of them, Tom King, is not seeking re-election.

The committee’s plan would convert one of the three seats into a majority-black district, giving Democrats a better chance to win it. Bryant’s would keep all as majority-white districts, making them safer for Republicans.

The Senate redistricting chairman, Republican Terry Burton of Newton, said that during 16 public hearings, one of the things people mentioned most often was a desire for a majority-black district in the Hattiesburg area.

“We produced a plan that is representative of the people of Mississippi,” Burton said Monday.

In the Jackson area, the committee’s plan would set a 50.3 percent black voting age population for District 29, now represented by David Blount, a white Democrat. Lawmakers say Bryant’s plan would set a significantly higher black voting age population in District 29, which could make it harder for Blount to be re-elected.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said that based on Census numbers, the Hattiesburg area is entitled to 2.2 Senate districts. Bryan supports the committee’s plan and said it’s “disturbing” that Bryant and the area’s three current senators are only listening to Republican supporters.

Bryan said some Hattiesburg-area residents have been pushing for years for a majority-black Senate district, and it was easy to draw one. Bryan asked: “Why are not their voices just as important as the other voices?”

Legislators face a time crunch because Mississippi’s new redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which checks to ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted. Lawmakers say the Justice Department needs about 60 days to examine the maps. June 1 is the candidates’ qualifying deadline for legislative elections.

The House passed its own redistricting plan this past week and it awaits Senate consideration. The 66-56 House vote was split largely along party lines, with most Democrats for and most Republicans against.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday that the House plan would leave many Mississippians without fair representation particularly in growing suburbs around Jackson and Hattiesburg. Bryant said he does not expect to see the House plan supported in the Senate.

The Senate has 12 majority-black districts. The plan released Monday would increase that to 15. Burton said 13 of the 15 would be considered viable for a black candidate to win because they’d have black majorities of at least 60 percent.

The Senate committee’s plan also would reduce the number of split precincts from 129 to 17.