May 22, 2001
There was no City Council meeting.May 29, 2001
The reconfiguration of Birmingham’s nine City Council districts rules the morning agenda. “Don’t move lines unnecessarily,” is Councilor Jimmy Blake’s rallying cry as he draws his own lines in the sand and pushes for two overwhelmingly white majority districts and seven majority black districts. Blake opposes maintaining three white council districts, as his District Three is actually the only overall majority white district (the other two districts are majority white only in the number of voting age residents living there, with overall white populations of approximately 49 percent in each district). Blake and his constituents warn that a lawsuit will be filed.Shifting racial tides
The Citizens Commission on Redistricting, formed to educate the public and to accept input about the current redistricting process, files its report on the redrawing of district lines. The commission has no power to make decisions and has abstained from making formal recommendations about the redistricting plan. But a majority of the commission agrees that maintaining six majority black seats and three majority white seats (the present black-to-white ratio on the council) is a
“logical and amicable redistricting approach that ensures no rich aggression has occurred in terms of the level of minority representation on the city council,” according to Gloria Gilmore, Powderly neighborhood president and secretary of the redistricting commission. She notes that a portion of each commission meeting was set aside for citizen input.The Citizens Commission is made of representatives appointed by each councilor. Jerry Wilson of Reapportionment Group 2000, L.L.C. served as facilitator of the commission’s May 3 meeting at the Aldrich Gunn Cultural Arts Center when the three redistricting proposals were presented. The city council eventually whittled the list down to one, known as the 2B plan. Council members had a couple of months to offer opinions in the redistricting process. Noting that “an extended public hearing” was held during the May 3 meeting, a Citizen Commission member reports this morning that “the three proposed plans were reviewed in painstalking [sic] detail.”
The current population of Birmingham is 242,820, with an ideal council district population of 26,980. The districts of Councilors Blake, Johnson, and MacDermott are too large (10,000 must be moved from these three majority white districts), while districts of Councilors Bell and Gunn are significantly too small. The districts of Councilors Bandy, Little, and Alexander will require little change. In the past decade, slightly more than 37,000 whites have left Birmingham, while the number of black residents has increased by just over 10,000. Under Plan 2B before the Council this morning, whites will be transferred out of Blake’s and MacDermott’s districts, while Johnson and Bell would have white residents added to their districts. Blacks would be removed from Bell’s, MacDermott’s, and Johnson’s districts, with black resident additions to the districts of Gunn and Blake.
Cris Correia, a voting-rights lawyer representing Reapportionment Group 2000 in Birmingham’s redistricting, fields questions and explains district changes. Supreme Court rulings previously determined that differences among districts for a city council level of government must not deviate beyond 10 percent. Reapportionment Group 2000 recommends that the deviation be kept below five percent “because the Census was just released,” according to Correia. She says the Voting Rights Act must be complied with, noting the short time frame involved considering that Council elections are only a little over four months away. The Justice Department has 60 days to approve or reject the plan.
Under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, redistricting “cannot have changes that will leave the racial minority in the jurisdiction worse off than it was before,” explains Correia. She says that the plan is “very much a compromise plan. Nobody [councilors] got everything they wanted out of it.” Correia confirms that council input was taken into consideration. Redistricting proceedings turn comical when it’s discovered that some information regarding District Nine is missing from the maps Correia has given to Mayor Kincaid and the council. (For the record, Reapportionment Group 2000 was paid approximately $250,000, reduced from the $500,000 fee requested. Councilor Blake had earlier offered to do the job for $1,000.) Correia apologizes for the printing error, noting that Districts Six through Nine do not change significantly. She then reads District Nine’s new configuration numbers to assuage fears over the missing district. Correia also keeps referring to councilors as “commissioners.” [At this point, the map before the Council repeatedly falls off the easel on which it is precariously perched, and Correia begins to show signs of nervousness.] Adding to the disorder of the presentation, Correia discovers that she doesn’t have actual figures when Councilor Lee Wendell Loder asks about changes to District Eight. Correia insists, nonetheless, that the alterations to Loder’s district are insignificant. When the councilor asks if the missing information pertaining to the number of residents to be removed from his district could be obtained before the end of the council meeting, Correia says no. But she does promise to e-mail the numbers when she returns to Atlanta that evening. Loder goes ahead and votes with the council majority to approve the new district alignment even though he doesn’t have the actual population changes in his district before him.
Have constituents, will travel
Addressing a boundary shift involving his District Four, Councilor Gunn notes, “That’s a tremendous move. I have no objection to it, ’cause I’m gonna represent the people wherever I go. But I want you to know that I want to have the right information which I’m votin’ on here, and I do not have it.” Sounding like the track announcer at Churchill Downs, Gunn suddenly reels off a list of street names as he recites the new boundaries of his district. “I’ll work with whatever card hand is dealt me,” promises Gunn. Commenting on how boundaries of one district affect another, the elder councilor says, “If you took a cup of water, and had it standin’ still, and you took a pea and dropped in it, the ripple effect would affect every district.” He reiterates his complaint about having to vote on the incomplete map set before him, but like Loder, Gunn votes with the majority approving the redistricting plan anyway.
Plan nine from outer space
Councilor Blake, who’s not running for reelection, has three additional redistricting plans he wants the council to consider. The councilor notes that all of the neighborhood presidents in his district oppose Plan 2A. The proposal being voted on by the council today is actually Plan 2B, but Blake explains that Plan 2A is almost the same as the 2B plan. Plan 2A differs from Plan 2B only by a few discrepancies between MacDermott’s and Johnson’s districts, notes Blake, which he says has been discussed by the two councilors. Blake complains that current redistricting proposals dilute white voting strength. The councilor notes that though many councilors are to be commended for wanting to avoid racial issues, racial concerns are a reality. “Unfortunately, redistricting under the Voting Rights Act is very much about racial issues. And I’m going to talk about racial issues this morning. I don’t know any way to handle it but straight up and straight forward, because it is essential to what we’re talking about.” Blake begins in cryptic fashion: “The first one [plan] is what I call Wilson Plan 2A Mod 2. I guess the B plan would be Mod 1.” Blake points to the Plan 2B map presented by Cris Correia, but explains again that his comparisons are actually to Plan 2A. Councilor Loder asks for clarification of Blake’s Plan 2A references. Blake explains that he did not get the 2B Plan until late, so his presentation to neighborhood leaders in his district was actually the 2A plan.
Blake further addresses white voting power: “The plan [presumably 2B] does not meet the objectives of not diluting the minority–let me call it what it is–the white voting strength.” Blake asks why overwhelmingly black areas are being put into majority white District Three. “That’s not rational, based on our criteria here,” says Blake. “We decimated Glen Iris Park with this plan. We took in, essentially, black voters, and gave up white voters to dilute out District Three. That’s not rational.” He points out that if a voting age majority is substantial reason for white majority designation, that will soon change as constituents reach voting age. According to Blake, the Reapportionment Group 2000 Plan 2A calls for 33,245 people to be moved to other districts, while his plan would require only 20,000 people put in new districts. Blake further warns that Plan 2B will not meet criteria defined by the Voting Rights Act. Addressing the reality of white flight, Blake deadpans “Let’s talk turkey for a minute,” as he notes that “white folks are moving out of Birmingham.” The councilor is concerned that the topic is “too sensitive” for some to discuss, but says this will not stop him from engaging in debate over white voting rights.
Pointing out there are not enough whites to actually have three majority white districts, Blake notes, “What we do to protect voting rights of white folks–and that’s what we’re talking about, and I’m not going to be squeamish about it–is that we change our approach and try to go to two majority districts that are substantially majority white. And there are enough white folks in Birmingham to do that.” District Two would no longer be a majority white district under Blake’s plan. “In terms of protecting and allowing white people to feel like they do have some word in the future of Birmingham, this is the proper way to do it.” Blake adds that he thinks his plan also improves Bell’s and Gunn’s districts.
Councilor Blake also has another plan that would pit MacDermott and Johnson against one another in the same overwhelmingly majority white district. Blake also speaks of “Plan Four,” though it is not immediately clear to which plan he is referring. He stresses that two predominantly white districts are vital to the future of Birmingham. Gunn replies that Blake’s original redistricting plan “ran me on a dog trail all the way up to Jeff State and across to [Highway] 79.” Gunn says that instead of trusting Blake’s plan, he’d prefer to be “pulled out of the ditch with a rope around my neck.”
Reapportionment Group 2000 representative Cris Correia argues with Blake that reduction to two majority white districts would violate the Voting Rights Act and its protection of minorities. Correia explains that since it’s possible to draw three white districts based on voting age population, the Justice Department will have no problem with that criteria. She also notes that registration rates of white voters are higher than black registration rates, which also plays into Justice Department criteria for determining majority districts. Blake disagrees, explaining that “traditionally, the Voting Rights Act has determined that black districts are considered majority when they are 65 percent or more black.” Blake says Correia is
“playing games” by using voting age and “what you don’t know about registration” as criteria for minority district determination.
Studying a laptop computer screen, Council President Bell proposes an amendment to Plan 2B that address concerns of Five Points South Neighborhood president Mike Higginbotham. Residents are perturbed about drastic changes in their district. Bell says that Blake told the “demographers” that he [Blake] “would not stand for any white neighborhood to be represented by any black council member.” Blake responds, “That’s insane!” Bell immediately smiles and replies, “That is insane, Dr. Blake, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell people about you for some time now.” As Bell continues to study the computer screen in front of him, he tells Blake, who is peering over Bell’s shoulder at the screen, “You know, Dr. Blake, I could concentrate if you weren’t breathing on me.” Blake replies, “It’s ironic that the only two people who are going to understand the district are you and Mike Higginbotham, because nobody else has seen it.” Bell says that he thought he was doing a favor for the neighborhood based on Blake’s request. Blake responds that he favors delaying the process until all have had the opportunity to view the final redistricting plan. Mike Higginbotham addresses the Council to clarify his role in the neighborhood protests. “Councilman Blake did talk with the neighborhood presidents, and expressed to us that he thought that we should express our concerns about the plan.” Higginbotham says that he has made an effort to stay out of the redistricting process, instead letting his neighborhood association decide what to do. The neighborhood’s protest centers around inclusion of voters from Bell’s district, because traditional voters in the district were being removed in favor of new voters.
Councilor Johnson finally interrupts the morning debates to urge that a vote be taken on the 2B redistricting plan. Johnson notes that there has been “plenty of opportunity for input.” As Blake begins to argue with him on that point, Johnson responds that he has the floor and immediately asks, “Mr. President [Bell], can you get Dr. Blake under control?” &