Political and racial tensions in Tennessee erupted into public view last week when Republicans in the state Assembly voted to oust two black Democrats from the chamber.
It was an unprecedented move that Democrats across the country, including President Joe Biden, criticized as racist and political.
But political observers in Tennessee and across the country say what happened was nothing new for the state’s Republican lawmakers and that the process Republicans have taken to minimize Democratic representation, both federally and state, it has actually been years in the making.
In recent years, Republicans have redraw maps that effectively reduce the number of districts representing Democrats, including some of the most diverse districts in the state, and increase the number of solid red districts.
The end result has been underrepresentation of Democrats and black voters in the state House in Nashville and in the US Congress.
“In recent years, too many members of the Republican Party have employed an array of strategies to suppress the voice of the people, from partisan and racial manipulation to voter suppression and outright intimidation. Now, without any justifiable pretext, they are in Tennessee removing duly elected Democratic legislators from office,” former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now heads the Democratic National Redistricting Committee, said in a statement.
Those efforts «would not be possible without first manipulating electoral maps to prevent free and fair elections in which the will of the people can be fully expressed,» added Holder, who saying On Monday, he was now providing legal advice to one of two ousted Democratic lawmakers, Justin Jones.
Just last year, the state Assembly, overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, split the only solidly Democratic congressional district that had spanned all of Nashville for decades, into multiple new districts that are all now solidly red. (The new map helped Republicans win a seat in the state’s congressional delegation; they now outnumber Democrats 8-1.)
And this year, Republicans in the state House, led by Majority Leader William Lamberth, introduced legislation to halve Nashville’s 40 city council seats, known as the Metropolitan Council, to 20. (Judges state governments ruled Monday to temporarily block that effort). Democrats in the state have pointed to the fact that voters have already rejected one measure, in a 2015 referendum – that would have achieved a similar result, noting that shrinking the council would result in the city’s most diverse neighborhoods losing exclusive representation of their areas.
Democrats in the state also argued that only local lawmakers should have the power to change the size of the corps and that the move by Republicans in the Legislature amounts to political retribution after the corps quashed city efforts to house the 2024 Republican National Convention.
However, efforts by Tennessee Republicans to effectively decrease representation for Democrats have been most evident at the state level.
Such efforts in recent years have created a map of state House districts in which half of the Republicans in the house ran totally unopposed in 2022. Of the 38 who had an opponent on the ballot in 2022, all but four won their election with 60% or more of the vote.
Recent state elections show a solid Republican lead, but one that still pales in comparison to the margins Republicans have made in the Legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation.
For example, Donald Trump won the state presidential vote in both 2020 and 2016 with roughly 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 state Senate seats (82%) and 75 of the 99 state House seats (76%).
Politics observers said the trends began years earlier, with a Tea Party-fuelled backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency that helped push Republicans to even larger majorities in the Legislature.
“The 2010 redistricting essentially locked in a huge majority and it has gotten even worse since then [for Democrats]said Matt Anderson, a Democratic political operator who has worked with state Senate Democrats for years.
Republicans in the state House voted last week to oust Jones, along with Justin J. Pearson, both black, for their protests on the House floor. A vote to oust a third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, fell short. Including Jones, who was reinstated in his seat following Monday’s vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council, and Pearson, who will be voted on Wednesday by the Shelby Board of County Commissioners, there are 15 black members in the Assembly. state.
In a state where about 78% of residents are white and 17% black, the ousted lawmakers represented much more diverse districts. state assembly District 86that Pearson represented, is 61% black, while the state Assembly district 52, that Jones represented, is 31% black.
In interviews with NBC News, Democratic voters across the state said they have been furious in recent years as Republican efforts to consolidate control and diminish Democratic representation in areas with Democratic majorities intensified.
“Because we’re in a majority Republican state, people will 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 trying to tell me who should represent me. You know I don’t want to be represented,» 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 have been doing things like this for years,” he added.
Multiple spokespersons and officials for the Tennessee Republican Party did not respond to questions from NBC News.
But even a handful of former Republican officials in recent days have lamented the expulsions as the latest example of increasingly aggressive tactics by the state Republican Party.
“Today is a very sad day for our state,” said former state representative Eddie Mannis, a moderate Republican who served just one term in the chamber before declining to run for re-election. aware on Facebook last week after Jones was formally kicked out.