Lawmakers Discuss Problem Of Redistricting

Jackson, Miss. (AP) -- New census statistics have created a flurry of questions about Mississippi's congressional redistricting, but one thing seems certain.

Even as the state goes from five U.S. House seats to four, it's guaranteed to maintain a majority black congressional district.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires the state not to ``retrogress,'' or move backward, in minorities' ability to participate in politics. More important to some experts is the question of fairness. They say keeping a majority black district is the right thing to do in a state with a 36.3 percent black population.

``The days of skullduggery over trying to get out of having a (majority black) district like that are probably over,'' said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government. ``When you talk about redistricting, most people start the conversation with, 'Of course, we've got to keep the 2nd District as close to what we have now.'''

The 2nd District is Mississippi's current majority black congressional district. It's primarily in the Delta, stretching along the Mississippi River from Tunica County in the north to Jefferson County in the south.

Addie Green of Bolton, a longtime NAACP member who lives in the 2nd District, said she feels better since Mississippi has had black representation in Washington. She believes a black congressman can relate more readily to black constituents.

Keeping a majority black district is ''100 percent important to me,'' Green said. ``Not 10 percent. 100 percent.''

The assumption that black people should have a voice in politics is still a relatively new one in Mississippi. For decades, Jim Crow laws prevented black political participation. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 started removing barriers.

In 1984, Mississippi adopted its first congressional district since Reconstruction with a majority black voting age population.

The first black congressman, Mike Espy, was elected from the 2nd District in 1986. After Espy became U.S. agriculture secretary in 1993, longtime Hinds County supervisor Bennie Thompson won the congressional seat. He still represents the 2nd District.

State officials received Mississippi's 2000 census data last week, and lawmakers will meet in special session later this year to redraw congressional district lines.

Mississippi's population grew 10.5 percent between 1990 and 2000, but the state is losing one of its five congressional seats because other states' populations grew more.

As lawmakers tackle the jigsaw puzzle of redistricting, they'll keep a couple of factors in mind in drawing a majority black district. Experts say it's not enough just to have an overall black majority. They have to go a step further and craft a district with a majority black voting age population _ those 18 and older.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, vice chairman of the Legislature's reapportionment committee, said expanding the 2nd District might be a starting point in redrawing Mississippi's congressional map.

``We would have a very difficult time getting a redistricting plan approved that doesn't include a majority black district,'' Bryan said.

After the 1990 census, the 2nd District was drawn with a 63 percent black population. The black voting age population was 58 percent.

Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he wants to see the Delta district maintain at least a 55 percent to 60 percent black voting age population. Historical voting patterns show that's about what it takes to give a black candidate a shot at election, he said.

Expanding the boundaries of the 2nd District could be challenging. Some Delta counties lost population, and there's a higher percentage of under-18 black than over-18 black population in the state.

``It's important that if the state of Mississippi is going to move forward, then we've got to make sure this state maintains the minority seat in Congress,'' Straughter said.

Lawsuits in recent years challenged majority black congressional districts in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said race couldn't be the only factor in drawing district lines, but it could be one factor among many.

Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, a member of redistricting committee, said Mississippi hasn't had problems like other states with majority black districts. Where Louisiana once had a congressional district that zigzagged through the state to pick up enough black population, Denny said Mississippi's was ``compact and contiguous,'' meaning it didn't twist and turn across geographic or political boundaries

Looking at taking more black residents into an expanded 2nd District, Denny said: ``It's going to take some real imagination to get this thing done right.''