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City Council Redistricting Looms

by Joe Sullivan

Uncertainties about redistricting based on the 2000 census have left several prospective candidates for City Council in limbo for the nonce. With next September's primary voting for five district seats on Council less than six months off, and no incumbents eligible to run because of term limits, a large field of candidates would figure to be launching their campaigns by now. While some are moving forward, others feel obliged to hold back until they know whether they will continue to reside in their present districts.

At first blush, the city's modest 2.4 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000 wouldn't seem to require much, if any, change in district boundaries in order to satisfy the legal requirement that none of the city's six Council districts can have more than 10 percent more residents than any other. But double-digit growth in the western suburbs masks population declines in the north, east and center of the city and dictates changes in all but one of the six districts. The lone exception is South Knoxville's 1st District which, somewhat surprisingly, has grown slightly faster than the city as a whole.

Deputy to the Mayor Frank Cagle reckons that it could take until the end of May for City Council to complete the redrawing of district lines. This pushes close to June 21 deadline by which candidates must formally file to run and is likely to create a lot of jockeying for position in the meantime.

Two candidates for the 2nd District seat being vacated by Jean Teague face the possibility that the Sequoyah Hills ward in which they live will get moved out because of the need to downsize the West Knoxville district. One of them is Joe Bailey, a lobbyist and son of former Councilman Ed Bailey. The other is Archie Ellis, a marketing executive and president of the Sequoyah School PTA, who says, "I'm just going to continue getting signatures on my qualifying petition and let the chips fall where they may."

On the other hand, County Commissioner Wanda Woody, who lives in the 2nd District's West Hills ward, says redistricting may be an important factor in her decision whether to seek a City Council seat.

For the 4th District seat being vacated by Carlene Malone, all four aspirants who have expressed an interest in succeeding her are subject to being moved into the 6th District that the late Danny Mayfield represented. Three of them live in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood and one in Holston Hills. At least two adjacent wards must be added to the 6th District to make up for its population decline, and these two are prime candidates.

"I should be out there now going door-to-door and meeting with community groups, but all of the redistricting talk has forced me to wait and see," says Shirley Nash-Pitts, a television newswoman who lives in Holston Hills. In Fourth and Gill, tree surgeon Jim Cortese, lawyer Rob Frost and community activist Jeff Talman are all anxiously awaiting the redistricting outcome. "Redistricting, while necessary, is inherently disruptive. When your neighborhood gets placed in a new district, you come in at the bottom of the food chain," says the loquacious Talman.

All four of the 4th District prospects are white, whereas the population of the 6th District is presently about 57 percent black. That would suggest a white candidate wouldn't fair well in the 6th. But under Knoxville's unique—so far as Mayor Victor Ashe is aware—system for electing City Council members, the plot thickens.

Under that system, candidates run exclusively within their districts in next September's primary. The top two finishers within each district then face off in a city-wide election in November. (There are also three at-large seats on Council, but they won't be contested again until 2003.) When the system was instituted in 1968, the intent was to provide for minority representation on Council—but also to assure a representative who would be accountable to the city as a whole. Prior to that, all Council members had been elected on an at-large basis.

Theotis Robinson, now UT's vice president for diversity, was the first person to hold the 6th District seat, and he believes the system has served the city well. Not only has minority representation been sustained, but also the black community "gains a say in every other district," he says. To which Ashe adds that, "the system ensures that all Council members look at the whole city and not just their own districts."

But the addition of predominantly white voting wards to the 6th District through redistricting promises to reduce its black majority to barely more than 50 percent. In a primary field crowded with black candidates, it becomes plausible that a white candidate could at least finish second and then win the city-wide run-off. And the prospect for a crowded field is looming. In his oration at Mayfield's funeral last Saturday, Rev. Eric Leake lamented that, "People have been lining up waiting for Danny to die."

Nash-Pitts says she wouldn't run in the 6th District if Holston Hills is added to it because, "I would hate to take it away from minority representation even if I could. Council needs to be more diverse." Talman says he wouldn't run there either but professes concern about "disenfranchisement of the impoverishment zone."

While no more than a dozen of the city's 57 wards figure to end up getting shifted, the question of which ones get moved is likely to produce a political tug-of-war. Holston Hills and Fourth and Gill are by no means the only options to replenish the 6th District; but all of the others that adjoin it are also predominantly white and have a stronger basis for resisting inclusion on grounds that they don't satisfy a City Charter provision for "relatively compact and contiguous" districts. The 2nd District in the west and the 3rd District in the northwest each will have to shed a ward or two to bring their populations back into line with the 4th and 5th Districts to their north and east. Sequoyah Hills appears less likely to be part of this realignment process than several other wards, but anything is possible.

Much more extensive redistricting will be required in Knox County where 13.8 percent population growth over the past decade (to a total of 382,032) has predominantly occurred in the southwestern and northwestern sectors of the county. But County Commission's need to reshape district boundaries isn't as pressing since county elections don't occur until next year.

City Council needs to proceed with the utmost dispatch so that prospective candidates know where they stand and can plan accordingly.

March 29, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 13
© 2001 Metro Pulse