Congressional Redistricting: The magical mystery tour

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 41 views 

Editor’s note: Roby Brock, with our content partner Talk Business, wrote this report. He can be reached at [email protected]

Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour.
Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour.
Roll up AND THAT’S AN INVITATION, roll up for the mystery tour.
Roll up TO MAKE A RESERVATION, roll up for the mystery tour.
The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away,
Coming to take you away.
The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away,
Dying to take you away, take you away.

When The Beatles penned those lyrics for their title song, Magical Mystery Tour, in 1967, they certainly weren’t talking about Arkansas’ redistricting process, but the words are apropos.

Redrawing the Congressional lines of Arkansas’ four federal representatives after the 2010 decennial Census has been a magical mystery tour for many.

Setbacks due to software compatibility have delayed legislative action on their once-a-decade mandate, but by the end of this coming week one might expect to see a series of maps floating around the capitol corridors.

Republicans have thoughts on reshaping the districts, as do Democrats. Members of the Black Caucus have some goals and are talking to both parties to find common ground.

Congressmen as far back as John Paul Hammerschmidt (R) and even former Ark. Governor Bill Clinton (D) have been sought for input and approval on some of the ideas being floated. Of course, their endorsement and influence may also smooth political feathers among different constituencies.

Plus, there are the parochial interests of nearly every one of the 75 counties in Arkansas — all aiming to shape their federal destiny through influence, coercion or any other means possible.

Rep. Clark Hall, D-Marvell, is the chair of the House State Agencies Committee, which will help shape the new Congressional maps. He says he’s heard from leaders in nearly every county of Arkansas, every caucus in the capitol, and people from every political persuasion.

"We’re trying to come up with a map that is acceptable — I will not say satisfying because I don’t think we can come up with a map that will satisfy everybody in this state," said Hall, acknowledging the Herculean task of pleasing the masses while following the constitutional mandate of drawing district lines as close to "one-person, one-vote" as possible.

Hall states the obvious factor driving redistricting decisions: the Third Congressional District must jettison around 110,000 residents.

Ideal Congressional District sizes would entail 731,557 residents in each of the four districts. Arkansas’ First and Fourth Districts need to gain about 50,000 and 75,000 citizens respectively. The Second District needs to lose about 15,000.

Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, is vice-chair of the Senate State Agencies Committee and one of the ranking senior members of the GOP caucus. He says that Congressional maps have been "all over the board" and while he doesn’t see a great consensus, he also doesn’t see a great divide.

"Right now, I don’t see any kind of momentum toward a real strong map that some might be supporting or opposing," Baker said. "It’s kind of every man for himself right now."

Beyond the Republican ranks, Baker has also consulted with Democratic Congressman Mike Ross and members of the Black Caucus, who all happen to be Democrats. Still, he seems puzzled by what might be the ultimate outcome.

"I really do believe at the end of the day, you’ve got two options. One is to nibble around the edges and basically keep the same districts with the exception of something significant coming out of the south of the Third or the northeast side of the Third just to accommodate the numbers that have to move," he said. "Or, you redraw something significantly to try to get a more significant black population in the Fourth district. From my view, we’ll go one of those two directions."

Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock, may be the perfect ambassador to navigate the tricky political waters in this debate. This year, he has returned to the House for his final term, but he just completed two terms in the collegial State Senate before this session.

He confides that he and other members of the caucus are talking to both political parties to understand the direction of the district remapping.

"I know there’s been a lot of reports that say we’re out for a Black district, but we’re just 15% of the population," says Steele. "All of that population is pretty well spread throughout the state. It’s almost impossible to have a ‘majority-minority’ district. That’s really not the goal of the caucus. If an African-American campaigns and wins fine. If a non-African-American campaigns and wins and goes to Washington and votes our interest, we’ll still be in a better situation. That’s our No. 1 issue."

Steele is one of several legislators who has filed a shell bill for Congressional redistricting — a "last resort" bill, he contends — but he’s optimistic that the caucus will get behind a particular plan after next week’s focus.

"I’m not promising we’re going to vote as a bloc on anything, but right now I see a lot of unity among the Black Caucus on this issue," said Steele.

"We want to vote on a plan that will put as many people with common interests together in a district so we can have the ability to send someone to Washington, D.C. that’s going to vote on the interest of a majority of the people. That’s critically important to us."

One of the more unorthodox maps that has gained early attention involves moving reliably Democratic Fayetteville and part of Washington County into the Fourth District via Madison, Johnson and Franklin Counties. The map caused an uproar upon its initial disclosure, but privately, multiple sources say it is gaining momentum.

Legislators are feeling the pressure to move on redistricting now that the software glitch has been remedied. Their adjournment act has a provision to allow them to come back into session to handle redistricting, according to Hall, who contends no one wants the federal courts to draw Arkansas’ lines.

He thinks that the legislature is ready to take up the challenge of making tough choices on the new boundaries, even though a portion of this coming week will be spent on constitutional amendments.

Hall says, "In the end, Arkansans will say, ‘We may not love it, we may not even like it, but we can live with it.’"

The verdict is out on how bipartisan the final plan may be; it is still likely to showcase major partisan strife. Perhaps lyrics from another song off The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album will sum up the debate more accurately:

You say yes, I say no.
You say stop and I say go go go, oh no.
You say goodbye and I say hello

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