While Alabama’s House and Senate make headlines with debates over pistol permits, death sentences and sanctuary campuses, staff members and legislators are working largely unnoticed on a project that could affect the racial and political makeup of the Legislature.
A federal court in January ruled that some of Alabama’s legislative districts amounted to racial gerrymandering, putting too many predominantly black communities with little in common in the same district and diluting their influence. Since then, the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has started to look at maps and redraw the boundaries of House and Senate districts. Perhaps 30 of the Alabama Legislature’s 140 districts might be affected.
The chairman of the committee said in a meeting recently that he was hoping for a quick and amicable process. But rarely in Alabama are conversations about race either quick or completely amicable, and this one is beginning against an already politically charged background.
Democrats in the House, drastically outnumbered by the Republicans’ 72-seat majority in the 105-member body, at one point threatened a work slow-down because they felt Republicans were steamrolling over them to pass their own agenda items.
“They show no signs of being cooperative, are only together and are running over us,” Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said after an intense session.
Jefferson County Democrats also are feeling outnumbered in their own House and Senate delegations and are hoping they can use the redistricting process to give them an even split. That would let both parties have a fighting chance to win converts for their agendas.
The Legislature goes through the redistricting battle every 10 years, after results from the Census are released. But this isn’t normally the year to tackle that. Legislators must deal with the issue now because a federal court in January struck down 12 of the districts that had been drawn after the 2010 Census. The court said race had played too dominant of a role in the process, and justices particularly took issue with district lines that split precincts in two or overlapped county lines.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville and chairman of the redistricting committee, said it’s likely more than 30 districts will be affected. That would be the disputed 12 districts and other districts that adjoin them.
Dorman Walker, lawyer for the committee, said legislators have to report back to the court by the end of their regular session on whether a new districting plan has been passed. He and Dial hope to have the job done by then for several reasons. Primarily, they want to avoid an expensive and time-consuming court battle over the districts. The districts also are supposed to be decided in time for the 2018 elections, and the parties and candidates need to know exactly where those district lines are going to fall as they plan for the elections.
Given the time constraints, Walker said the redistricting plans would not be finished in time to hold public hearings across the state, as the Legislature usually does. Once they’re drawn, the committee could call a hearing to receive public comments in Montgomery before it votes, he said.
Dial asked that the plans be drafted before the Legislature goes on spring break, the last two weeks of March, so legislators could take them back to their districts.
A Democratic Opposition
But the process might not go that smoothly, considering Democratic dissatisfaction with the legislative session so far.
Rogers said Democrats already have been meeting to talk about what they want out of redistricting, although they don’t yet have a plan together.
He said Democrats felt Republicans had been carrying out their own agenda and not giving a fair hearing to proposals from the Democrats, and Democrats do not have the numbers to stop them.
“We’ll remedy that in the 2018 election,” said Rogers, who is hoping the redistricting will give Democrats a shot at winning at least a few more seats.
The redistricting issue and frustration over how the legislative session has been going so far also is resurrecting complaints Rogers and other Democrats had last year about the shift in power on the Jefferson County delegation.
Republicans now outnumber Democrats on the delegation, in part because of the way lines were drawn in the last redistricting. Several legislators who don’t live in Jefferson County are on the delegation because their districts cross into the county. One member of the delegation lives in Winston County, for instance.
“The delegation is totally split,” Rogers said. “All we do is fight all the time.”
A County Delegation’s Role
A united local delegation can be a powerful thing in the Legislature. The Alabama constitution gives the Legislature a lot of control over local issues, and legislators tend to defer to local senators and representatives when it comes to bills that affect their districts.
Beyond that, when there are issues of particular importance to an area, having a united core of legislators using their contacts to work toward the same goal can give them a boost toward achieving what they want.
Rogers and Sen. Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said they’re hoping the redistricting gives the delegation an even split of five Democrats and five Republicans in the Jefferson County House delegation, and three Democrats and three Republicans in the county’s Senate delegation.
“That way they can’t run over us all the time,” Rogers said.
Rep. Jim Carns, R-Vestavia Hills and chairman of the local House delegation, said he has sympathy for Democrats’ plight.
“I was in the minority for 16 years, so I know the feeling,” he said.
But he also believes Jefferson County Republicans have tried to be accommodating. Carns said maintaining an equilibrium between Democrats and Republicans is one of his priorities. But that did become more difficult after the resignation of former Rep. Oliver Robinson, a Birmingham Democrat who Carns said was a stabilizing force in the delegation.
Having legislators who don’t live in Jefferson County and who have a small portion of their districts in the county can be difficult even when the parties are playing well together, several legislators said.
Smitherman said legislators from outside the county can have different interests than those who represent only Jefferson County, and legislators who represent rural areas have different issues than those who represent urban and suburban places.
Sen. Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham, said during a committee meeting last week that the last redistricting had diluted Jefferson County’s voice in the Legislature, and officials with other county governments have been concerned about their counties not being fully represented, as well.
Getting Down to Work
Amid these debates, committee staff and members are pulling out maps and starting to draw new lines on them.
Dial said that if just the districts involved in the court ruling are redrawn, he expects the redistricting to affect five of the 35 Senate districts and 27 of the 105 House districts.
Walker, in a presentation to the committee, said he thought the changes would mostly be where district lines now divide precincts and overlap county lines.
But James Blacksher, one of the lawyers representing the Legislative Black Caucus in the lawsuit over districts, told the committee he wasn’t sure this redistricting would be as easy as making a little nip here and tuck there.
The federal court said race can be considered as a factor in drawing new districts, but it cannot be the predominant factor. Blacksher said that could be a difficult hair to split to the court’s satisfaction, and legislators were given little guidance on how to do that.
Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden and a member of the committee, also said he was worried that the court would not approve the redistricting plans if they were drawn using the same standards that were used to draw the 2012 plans.
“It appears we’re sending the fox back in the henhouse,” he said, while adding he hopes that is not the case.