Mid-state growth can impact ET congressional districts

Frank CagleFrank Talk

It’s easy to see that the explosive growth of the Nashville metro area has had a major impact on the city and county governments in adjoining counties. What is not so obvious is the effect the growth will have on Knoxville and East Tennessee.


Let’s just say you may need to pay attention to who gets elected to Congress from the 1st District, and if you live in a suburban county to Knoxville you may lose the services of the popular fist-bumping Carhartt-wearing Rep. Tim Burchett. Congressional districts in East Tennessee could be shifting to the west.

When the state legislature redraws congressional districts after this year’s census is completed it depends on where they start. If they start in Memphis, districts will shift east and Knoxville and upper east Tennessee will not be affected much. But if they start in the Tri-Cities, then districts will shift west.

Congressional districts are supposed to contain roughly the same number of people in each. If Middle Tennessee districts grow in population then East Tennessee districts may need to grow by adding counties. In other words, the 1st District, which stretches from Sevier County to the Tri-Cities, will expand west and take in some additional counties around Knoxville. Which will result in the 2nd District, in which Knox County is the largest population center, to expand west or go north to take in Union and Campbell counties.

Frank Cagle

The 3rd District, which starts in Chattanooga, comes up I-75 to the Kentucky border and forms a fishhook back to Union County. Counties in the 3rd District could be moved to the 2nd District.

Except for transportation funds, Nashville’s growth probably won’t penalize East Tennessee when it comes to the state budget. The distribution of state funds is more balanced now because Republicans control the legislature and represent counties all across the state, rather than the days when the state’s three grand divisions were split by political parties. These days the former Democratic rural west is as Republican as east and middle Tennessee.

East Tennessee was once the most heavily populated of the three grand divisions and the east paid more taxes than the other two. Back in the 1990s when I was the News Sentinel managing editor, we engaged in epic battles with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. East Tennessee paid the taxes but the revenue got spent in sparsely populated West Tennessee, home to Naifeh and Lt. Gov. John Wilder. Rural Democrats in West Tennessee formed a coalition with urban black legislators to control the legislature.

There was a place amid the soybean fields out west where two four-lane highways intersected. There was so little traffic the intersection had four-way stop signs rather than a traffic light.

Gov. Bill Haslam passed a gas tax increase dedicated to highway construction. Nashville’s growth and the building of a huge Amazon facility will likely mean that Middle Tennessee will eat up transportation funds for some time to come. That may be why Gov. Bill Lee is proposing a one-time $100 million program out of the budget surplus, $50 million to counties and $50 million to cities and towns. That is over and above the usual transportation funding, and it will help with local roads while the regular highway construction budget will go to alleviate major bottlenecks.

Things to watch in redrawing districts: Will incumbent Republicans sign off on the counties they want in their district? An effort could be made to split Nashville Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper’s district to put the Democrats in two heavily Republican districts, but that would require finding an incumbent Republican willing to risk his election by taking in hostile Democrats. The same would be true of Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen in Memphis. And a federal judge would likely suggest they try again.

State senate and house seats will also be adjusted, but with a super majority of Republicans in the legislature not much is likely to change. Except that pesky seat in Knoxville where Democrat Gloria Johnson gets elected every so often.

A real hero: You may have heard the story about Davy Crockett and his speech to constituents after losing his congressional seat: “I’m going to Texas, and you can go to hell.”

So, he winds up at the Alamo. But it’s hardly ever mentioned why the popular Crockett lost his seat in Congress. Crockett opposed fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson’s plan to forcibly remove the Cherokees to Oklahoma. President Jackson ignored critics and ignored the Supreme Court. But he didn’t ignore Crockett.

Jackson’s political machine in Tennessee put up a candidate and campaigned against Crockett and defeated his re-election. Some historians believe Crockett planned to come back and run for president against Jackson’s hand-picked successor Vice President Martin Van Buren. But then there was the Alamo.

Given all the controversy about historical figures and the state capitol perhaps a Tennessean who sacrificed his political career and sided with the Cherokees against a popular president should be given more attention and discussion than Nathan Bedford Forrest. There is a plan to put a statue of Crockett in a prominent place on the grounds of the capitol, a move that we should support whole-heartedly.

Money is money: Gov. Lee’s budget has been justly lauded for including $117 million for teacher pay raises. But to put that in perspective, The Tennessean reports that the state spent $221 million in state funds to pay for federal programs for which federal funds were available.

Frank Cagle is a former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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