Some Fear Proposed Plan Could Harm the Delta
By Becky Gillette
Due to population loss in the Delta according to the most recent Census, Mississippi’s U.S. Congressional Districts must be redrawn. The Mississippi Legislature recently approved a plan that some fear will adversely impact the Delta by extending the state’s only majority-Black district nearly the entire length of the state.
The plan moves a large portion of southwest Mississippi from the 3rd to the 2nd District. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who currently represents the 2nd District, has said it created a district too large for anyone to adequately represent. Instead, Thompson had proposed that all of Hinds County be moved into the 2nd District.
The redistricting was approved along party lines with support from Republicans and opposition from Democrats. Republicans are in the driver’s seat due to having a super majority in the Mississippi Legislature.
House Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Robert L. Johnson, III, Natchez, said the plan approved by the legislature takes up nearly half the state.
“In my opinion, the district is not geographically compact in terms of being able to serve and govern,” says Johnson. “It is close to 300 miles long and takes up nearly half the counties in the state. For whatever reason, the redistricting committee didn’t add the southwest portion of Madison County and the rest of Hinds County, and instead they added four counties that actually lost population which is the issue they were trying to cure when they redistricted. It doesn’t allow the congressman, whoever it is, the ability to serve his district as well as he can because it is too big.”
Johnson says there are two criteria for redistricting in state statues. One refers to having a cohesive geographic makeup and another addresses that the district includes “communities of interest” so that people represented share common characteristics. He says the district approved by the Mississippi Legislature doesn’t satisfy those requirements.
“There were public meetings,” says Johnson. “We had committees that met. The committee proposed a plan, but it wasn’t debated by the legislature. I think they did a disservice to the legislature and the people of Mississippi to after one day say, ‘This is our plan. Vote it up or down.’ It should have been treated like any other legislation with letting everyone in the legislature have the chance to weigh in and have some input on it.”
An alternative plan proposed by the Democrats that would have added the more populated urban areas near the center of the state instead of the four southwestern counties was supported by the NAACP, but failed to pass the legislature.
Johnson says one possible negative consequence to the Delta could be in terms of programs to support economic development.
“We need to do a better job,” says Johnson. “No matter who the Congressman is, that person should help create businesses, encourage enterprise districts, promote infrastructure, support a good environment in education, and keep small businesses thriving. You do that by paying attention to the district, keeping the population there and keeping jobs. When you expand that district, it dilutes the ability to get that done. The larger district is a disservice to the Delta and the Delta business community.”
The courts are a potential remedy. A lawsuit could be filed to challenge the proposed redistricting. “I don’t know who, but I know people have gathered and are hiring legal teams,” says Johnson. “They are people who live in the Delta and the 2nd District as it is now. I think there are some citizens interested in having a statutorily valid district.”
Sen. Lydia Graves Chassaniol, R-Winona, District 14, represents a wide geographic areas including eight counties: Attala, Carroll, Grenada, Leflore, Montgomery, Panola, Tallahatchie and Yalobusha counties.
“Geographically, the 2nd Congressional District is the largest in Mississippi,” says Chassaniol, who voted for the district that was approved. “I personally don’t see that there is a problem. My own state senate District 14 is also the largest. I have all of Carroll and parts of seven other counties. District 14 goes from Vaiden to Pope on I-55 and spreads out east to west at a similar distance.”
She doesn’t feel like the people of her district are not well served because it’s geographically large.
“It’s my job to work for everyone in my district, and I try to make myself accessible to all of my constituents,” says Chassaniol. “A hundred years ago, a geographically large district would have been a disadvantage for both elected officials, as well as constituents. Fortunately, we live in modern times. We have modern transportation and good roads. I can travel from my home in Winona to any part of my district within an hour’s time. If the people of District 14 think I’m doing a good job, I hope to continue to do so.”