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How redistricting brought Tennessee to this moment

Politics watchers note that Republican efforts in the state to minimize representation of Democrats — on both the federal and state levels — have been years in the making.
Tennessee State Troopers block the stairwell leading to the legislative chambers on April 6, 2023, in Nashville.
Tennessee state troopers block the stairwell leading to the legislative chambers in Nashville on Thursday.George Walker IV / AP

Political and racial tensions in Tennessee erupted into public view last week when Republicans in the state Assembly voted to expel two Black Democrats from the chamber.

It was an unprecedented action that Democrats across the country — including President Joe Biden — excoriated as racist and political.

But politics watchers in Tennessee and around the nation say that what happened was nothing new for the state’s GOP lawmakers and that the process Republicans have taken to minimize the representation of Democrats — on both the federal and state levels — has actually been years in the making.

In recent years, Republicans have redrawn maps that effectively curtail the number of districts that represent Democrats — including some of the most diverse districts in the state — and increase the number of solidly red ones.

The end result has been less representation for Democrats and for Black constituents in the state House in Nashville and in the U.S. Congress. 

“Over the past few years, too many in the Republican Party have employed a series of strategies to suppress the voice of the people, from partisan and racial gerrymandering to voter suppression to outright intimidation," former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement. "Now, without any pretense of justification, they are in Tennessee removing duly elected Democratic lawmakers from office.”

Those efforts “would not be possible without first rigging the electoral maps to prevent free and fair elections where the will of the people might be fully expressed,” added Holder, who said Monday he was providing one of the two Democratic lawmakers who were expelled, Justin Jones, with legal counsel.

Just last year, the state Assembly — which Republicans control with a supermajority — sliced the one solidly Democratic congressional district that had for decades encompassed all of Nashville, into multiple new districts that are all now solidly red. (The new map helped Republicans pick up a seat in the state’s congressional delegation; they now outnumber Democrats 8 to 1).

And this year, Republicans in the state House, led by Majority Leader William Lamberth, moved legislation to cut the 40-seat Nashville city council — known as the Metropolitan Council — in half to 20. (State judges blocked that effort temporarily on Monday.) Democrats in the state have pointed to the fact that voters already rejected a measure — in a 2015 referendum — that would have accomplished a similar result, noting that shrinking the council would result in the most diverse neighborhoods in the city losing exclusive representation.

Democrats in the state also alleged that only local lawmakers should have the power to alter the size of the body and that the measure from Republicans in the Legislature amounts to political retribution after it killed efforts for the city to host the 2024 Republican National Convention.

However, efforts by Tennessee Republicans to effectively lessen representation for Democrats have been most obvious at the state level.

Such efforts in recent years have created a map of districts in the state House in which half of the Republicans in the chamber ran totally uncontested in 2022. Of the 38 who did have an opponent on the ballot, all but four won their election with 60% or more of the vote.

Recent statewide elections show a solid GOP advantage — but one that still pales in comparison to the margins that Republicans have carved out in the Legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation.

For example, Donald Trump won the presidential vote in the state in both 2020 and 2016 with about 61% of the vote, and Republican Gov. Bill Lee won re-election last year with 65% of the vote.

But Republicans hold 27 of the 33 seats in the state Senate (82%) and 75 of the 99 seats in the state House (76%).

Politics watchers said the trends began years earlier, with a tea party-fueled backlash against the Barack Obama presidency that helped sweep Republicans into even larger majorities in the Legislature.

“2010 redistricting essentially locked in a supermajority, and since then it’s gotten even worse [for Democrats],” said Matt Anderson, a Democratic political operative who has worked with state Senate Democrats for years.

Republicans in the state House voted last week to expel Jones, along with Justin J. Pearson, who are both Black, over their gun-control protests on the chamber floor. A vote to expel a third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, fell short. Including Jones, who was reinstated to his seat following a vote Monday by the Nashville Metropolitan Council, and Pearson, whose reinstatement will be voted on Wednesday by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, there are 15 Black members in the state Assembly.

In a state where approximately 78% of the residents are white and 17% are Black, the expelled legislators represented districts that were far more diverse. State Assembly District 86, which Pearson represented, is 61% Black, while state Assembly District 52, which Jones represented, is 31% Black.

In interviews with NBC News, Democratic voters throughout the state said they’d grown furious in recent years as Republican efforts to consolidate control — and lessen Democratic representation in areas with Democratic majorities — intensified.

“Because we’re in a state where you have majority Republicans, you’re going to have people take advantage of their power, and that’s what they’ve been able to do for a long time,” said Karlton Davidson, 48, of Nashville. 

“Republicans want to decide who represents me. They keep wanting to tell me who should be representing me. You know I don’t want them to represent me,” added Sidney Tate, 79, who lives in Memphis.

Sheila Hudson, 62, of Memphis, told NBC News, “It should be us choosing who we want, not the Republicans.”

“They’ve been pulling things like this for years,” she added.

Multiple spokespersons for and officials from the Tennessee GOP didn’t respond to questions from NBC News.

But even a handful of former Republican officials have in recent days lamented the expulsions as just the latest example of increasingly aggressive tactics by the state GOP.

“Today is such a sad day for our State,” former state Rep. Eddie Mannis, a moderate Republican who served just one term in the chamber before declining to run for re-election, posted on Facebook last week after Jones was formally expelled.