Democracy at work, politics at play
Nov. 4, 2001
Sunlight gleamed off the gold leaf covering the 8-foot solid copper eagle perched high atop the state Capitol dome in Jackson as legislators arrived to confront the political puzzle of the decade.
They parked in their assigned spaces on the Capitol grounds, walked past neatly-trimmed grass and into a 98-year-old building that remains a stunning example of Beaux Arts Classical style architecture. The newly-installed metal detectors, armed Mississippi Highway Patrol officers, police and other security devices were deemed necessary, but seemed strangely out of place.
Legislators greeted each other, talked football and family.
And then, under a facade of not playing partisan politics, they launched the most basic political struggle imaginable redrawing congressional district lines in a process that will reduce Mississippi's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives by one.
One' seat, huge impact
In this case, the implications are national. What members of the Mississippi Legislature do next week, presuming they will eventually reach some consensus, may well determine which political party controls the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2002 elections.
There was talk of helping President George W. Bush in times of trouble. There was talk of party loyalty. There was mention of the word "fairness," although its definition depended on who was doing the talking.
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who chaired a special legislative committee on redistricting, put it in perspective when debate in the House turned to a proposal drafted by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck a plan Democrats say would favor Republican Chip Pickering over Democrat Ronnie Shows. Pickering and Shows will likely face each other in an amalgamated district in 2002.
Both national political parties have taken a keen interest. State GOP chairman Jim Herring watched the debate from the galleries. Shows, a former state senator with many friends in the Legislature, personally worked the floors of both chambers and adjacent halls with the message that he could not beat Pickering unless the heavy Republican-voting counties of Lauderdale and Rankin counties are split between two districts.
The House-passed "Tornado Plan" put much of Lauderdale County into a new coast district, while portions of the city of Meridian would be in the central district. It split Newton, Neshoba and Winston counties. The Tuck plan left Lauderdale and Rankin counties intact, as does a potential compromise plan drafted by state Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville.
As debate took place in each house, the optimism inherent in a bright fall day with clear skies and sunshine outside belied the cloudy intrigue taking place inside the Capitol.
Listening to the debate, talking with members and lobbyists gathered in the marble-floored corridors, it quickly became apparent that no matter how legislators eventually slice up the pie, someone is going to be unhappy. Someone is going to be the "one" tagged in a game of politics.
As state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, put it, "I don't mean to be overly partisan, but at some point I can't resist." He was incensed that Republicans in Virginia would draw new lines in that state that punished Democrats. He was ecstatic that the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, where Republican incumbent Gov. Jim Gilmore is term-limited, is a likely winner.
The process of reducing Mississippi's seats in the U.S. House of Representatives from five to four is necessary because of Mississippi's slow growth over the last decade. It didn't keep up economically with other states and its punishment is the loss of a congressional seat.
This is an up-close and personal view of democracy at work and politics at play. Redrawing congressional district boundaries for political party advantage is constitutional, while drawing lines that dilute black voting strength is not. And, the underlying the process is the fact that there are good features in more than one plan.
Also coloring the issue for some was a promise elicited by Meridian business leader and former state senator Glen Deweese before his death. Reportedly, he got commitments from Tuck and other legislative leaders that Lauderdale County would not be split in two by this process. Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who visited with Deweese shortly before his death, told this reporter he intends to keep that promise.
But the process is not yet finished. The special session continues Monday and, on all sides, hopes are still alive.
Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.