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Democrats hold House calendar hostage after GOP pushes redistricting plan through committee

The Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama.

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — Democrats promised to hold up progress in the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday after a clash with Republicans over legislative redistricting earlier in the day.

And they delivered on their promise, slowing down the calendar and holding the House in session late into the night on Tuesday. Despite staying in session almost 10 hours, the House only made its way through about five bills on their 18-bill schedule.

Democrats filibustered and used loopholes in legislative procedure to force almost all of the bills to be read at length by a robotic voice. Some of the bills took almost half an hour to be read.

At a Constitutions, Campaigns and Elections Committee meeting earlier in the day, Democrats not-so-subtly promised to hold up all progress in the House after Republicans passed their House redistricting plan along party lines and without much debate.

“I don’t care if the Pope has a bill today. It’s dead,” said Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham. “We want parity, equality and fair play.”

Democrats in the committee hearing the new redistricting — including Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, and Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile — attempted to table the plan over concerns that Republicans were moving too fast. They said the Republican plan doesn’t fix the underlying problem of stacking and packing minorities into a few legislative district, a tactic that was struck down by a three-judge federal court panel earlier this year.

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Givan and Clarke, members of the Legislative Black Caucus, which was the plaintiff in the federal court case, urged the Republican members of the committee to slow down and “do it right” so that the Court would not overturn the new districts again.

“This isn’t just about the timeline,” Givan said. “This is about doing it right.”

The committee moved ahead Tuesday with approving the Republican redistricting plan over objections from Clarke and Givan who tried to substitute another plan. The Democrats failed in stopping the bill, though, and the GOP passed the bill along a party line vote of 7-3.

The GOP plan changes about 70 House districts, but most of the disagreement over the redistricting plan surrounds the makeup of Jefferson County and its delegation. The plan, according to Democrats, would bring another Republican into the Jefferson County delegation because of changes in outlying districts. The new Republican would tip the scales on the local Jefferson County delegation in favor of the Republicans.

“Jefferson County is the economic center of the whole state,” Rogers said. “They want to try to maintain control of Jefferson County. That’s the basic thing they’re trying to do.”

In total, more than 95 legislative districts — about 70 in the House and 25 in the Senate — would be redrawn if the GOP Senate and House plans pass the Legislature. Most of the changes are minor, Dial said, but many of the realignments are intended to bring districts back in line with precinct and county lines when possible.

A Federal court decision earlier this year ruled 12 of Alabama’s Legislative Districts unconstitutional because the court found their alignment had been based improperly upon race. Three of the districts were Senate districts and nine were in the House.

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Republicans, who drew the lines in 2010, said they were trying to maintain majority-black districts in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But several Supreme Court decisions, including Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, struck down many of the racial requirements for redistricting.

The Black Caucus, who challenged the lines in court, said they were packing black voters, who often support Democrats, into a handful of districts to limit the Democrats’ power.

Now the Legislature is largely drawing lines without considering race, then they will go back and see if any majority-minority districts’ demographics would be changed too dramatically.

Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, said the committee had to vote on the plan today to keep up with a looming May 25 deadline to finalize a plan. In combination with a slew of other unfinished business, redistricting is one of the leadership’s first priorities as the end of the 2017 Legislative Session ends.

“We know we are going back to court,” Davis said. “We think we are addressing it in a very fair and forthright way.”

Davis said he is not through with negotiating the plan with Democrats. He said he plans to meet with Democrats on Wednesday to address some of their concerns. If a compromise is met, he will offer an amendment or substitute to the 530-page bill on the floor of the House to reflect the changes.

Other members of the Democratic and Black Caucuses blasted Republicans for trudging along despite hearing major concerns from the minority party. A public hearing was held but only political insiders came both in support and against the bill. The bill was voted out of committee after about an hour of debate.

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“There’s no effort to try to work together,” said Rep. John Knight, Black Caucus chair. “I’m asking them, please, let’s try to work together to see if we can’t compromise on a plan.”

Knight and Rogers said they expect the responsibility of redistricting the state to end up in the hands of the federal courts because they believe the Republican plan does not solve the issues raised by the courts. The plan, if passed by the Legislature this session, must be approved by the federal courts before going into effect.

“We’re too polarized in this state,” Knight said. “We need districts that are stabilized. We don’t need all-black districts. You don’t need all-white districts.”

The Black Caucus has also provided its own proposed redistricting plan. Republicans said they tried to use the Black Caucus plan when creating their own, but Democrats say the plans were largely different.

In the Senate, things ran more smoothly in the Tourism and Marketing Committee headed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. The Senate redistricting plan, carried by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, was up in the committee for its second day.

Dial said he and his colleagues tried to preserve county and precinct lines in the Senate plan, as required by recent Supreme Court decisions. Even in the Senate, there were some issues over Jefferson County. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham said he was concerned with the Republican-Democrat split in the county — similar to the criticism raised earlier in the day in the House.

Marsh asked Dial to meet again with the Democratic delegation to see if they could come up with another option before the vote on the bill in committee expected Wednesday morning.

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“I think we all benefit at the end of the day the more people support this plan,” Marsh said.

If the Democrats continue their filibuster of House business, it could put the House leadership in a bind. Neither the General Fund Budget nor the Education Trust Fund Budget has been passed by the Legislature, which is its only constitutional requirement. Other major legislation, including prison construction, are also awaiting their final approvals.

Email Chip Brownlee at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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