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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Carving knives at the ready

by John Brummett | September 28, 2021 at 4:43 a.m.

On Wednesday the state Legislature will re-assemble for its Halloween session perhaps to carve up Pulaski County like a pumpkin.

The task is congressional redistricting under the new census. It was deferred from the spring because the new numbers weren't ready. That's the main reason the Legislature didn't simply adjourn, but chose an extended recess.

Late-filed plans for redrawing the state's four congressional districts to adapt to population shifts reveal Republican interest in a surgical strike against Pulaski County for being large and infested with Democrats.

We surely saw it coming. The current Republican rage is owning the liberals. The greatest concentration of remaining liberals is in Pulaski County.

This is the Republicans' first chance in more than a century to be in charge of redistricting. They're not inclined to let new political muscle go to waste.

Currently, Pulaski, by casting almost half the 2nd District vote, can carry a stout Democratic candidate to 45 percent. That's the closest thing to a congressional contest in the state.

The Republican idea is to divide Pulaski into separate congressional districts to reduce its currently minimal strength to something more thoroughly anemic.

Democrats can whine all they want but the fact remains that they're the ones who came up 10 years ago with that eventually rejected "Fayetteville Finger" to run a narrow strip up the mountain to put Fayetteville's Democratic voters in the 4th District with the southern half of the state presumably to protect an incumbent congressman.

And, as mentioned in the Sunday column, Republican Sen. Jason Rapert of Bigelow, who co-chairs the joint committee handling redistricting this week, is carrying around his grudge that his state senatorial district got drawn against his interest by Democrats Mike Beebe and Dustin McDaniel a decade ago.

That's different, though. A three-person apportionment board of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state redraws all 135 legislative districts. The issue at hand is the full Legislature's responsibility to redraw the four congressional districts.

But the point is the same. It's that partisan control typically protects partisan interests in the drawing of districts.

Partisan factors in redistricting are not thought to be legally vulnerable unless the partisan interest is blatantly overplayed. What's more typically actionable legally is unfairness to minority groups, such as deliberately sapping Black voting strength by fracturing it into more than one district.

So, the central legal issue is probably race on these Republican plans to keep 74 counties intact and equalize the per-district population by carving out portions of Pulaski County two or three ways. It is whether--by doing that and calling it a fair-minded attempt to protect as many county lines as possible--the Black vote in Pulaski is weakened.

The most intriguing of the several proposed Republican maps is the one sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs. His plan draws three of the four districts--all but the 3rd in the northwest corner, which must constrict--toward Little Rock. Then it equalizes populations among those districts by splitting Pulaski County three ways as needed among them. He even splits the city of Little Rock into separate districts.

But it sends the minority areas of Little Rock southeastward to a proposed new district through Jefferson County and into parts of the Delta, thus consolidating some Black vote. But he also takes the district south and a tad southwest to assure a white rural conservative dominance.

He says his plans represent simple geographic logic and that it is merely "icing on the cake" that Pulaski's influence in the existing 2nd District would be eliminated.

Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, one of the state's last Democrats standing, saw one element almost to like in Hester's plan. So, he has drawn a district keeping Pulaski County whole but extending south and east through Pine Bluff and onward into the Delta.

His plan combines small counties in such a way that he splits no county anywhere, and, he contends, does so within established court-allowable population deviations.

State Rep. Reginald Murdock of Marianna, a Democrat, has an even better plan from the Black voter perspective, extending from Pulaski County more due eastward with greater concentrations of Black voters.

Naturally, Tucker's and Murdock's--and a similar one by Sen. Joyce Elliott--can't prevail because they're the work of Democrats and bear the burdens of logic and fairness.

The Republicans want to flex their new muscle on something. The state's central and most populous and Democratic county offers the handiest playground for slicing, dicing and liberal-punishing.

Much depends on how Pulaski carving is done. Part of the county outside Little Rock and North Little Rock is more like the rest of the Trumpian state than the saner cities.

Whatever happens, we'll most likely see eventual litigation by which courts can decide whether the Republican legislative fun beginning Wednesday caused harm to anyone's voting rights.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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