The county’s proposed redistricting plan moves nearly 20,000 residents either into or out of the North Knoxville 2nd District — even though it is already close to its ideal size.
by jesse fox mayshark • October 8, 2021
The proposed new map for districts 1 and 2. precincts with hash marks have been moved. The "SB" buttons show the home addresses of current school board members.
Knox County’s 2nd District covers most of North Knoxville, from 4th and Gill to Fountain City and New Harvest Park to Inskip.
Proposed district changes wouldn't have much partisan impact, but they could break up communities.
In its current configuration, it’s one of the most compact of the county’s nine legislative districts, which set boundaries for County Commission and school board representation. According to 2020 U.S. Census numbers, it is also already at a nearly perfect population size — it has 53,274 residents, just 0.3 percent above the 53,095 district ideal given the county’s total population.
But in the redistricting map recommended Wednesday by a committee largely made up of County Commission members, the 2nd District would see the most change. Of 42,588 people across the county who would be shifted into a new district by the map, nearly half — 19,351 — would be moved either into or out of the 2nd.
It would also move the district’s current school board member, Jennifer Owen, out of the 2nd District and into the East Knox County 8th District.
“The plan seems to very unnecessarily shuffle precincts in District 2, creating a much less compact district and changing districts and representation for nearly 20,000 people,” Owen said Thursday. “Shuffling that many people in D2, when the only district that is significantly over-sized is D6, seems convoluted and unreasonable.”
The West Knox 6th District, which includes Karns and Harsin Valley, currently has about 61,000 people after a decade of fast growth. Some of the changes to the 2nd District would indirectly help alleviate that imbalance, absorbing the southern half of the Norwood neighborhood to allow the northwest 3rd District to pick up a large precinct from the 6th.
Splitting a Neighborhood
But the biggest change to the 2nd District is the bifurcation of one of its largest neighborhoods, Oakwood-Lincoln Park. Under the proposal, the northern Lincoln Park half of the community — the county’s 18th Precinct — would shift into the center-city 1st District, while the southern Oakwood half, the 17th Precinct, would remain in the 2nd District.
County Commissioner Kyle Ward, who proposed the map earlier this week, said the shift will enhance the majority-minority status of the 1st District, which includes most of East Knoxville and all of downtown. Partly because of the North Ridge Crossing public housing development on the north side of Sharp’s Ridge, the 18th Precinct has the largest minority population of any precinct adjacent to the 1st District.
“My biggest goal was to keep the minority majority,” Ward said after Wednesday’s meeting. “Unfortunately, to accomplish the goal we had to make some sacrifices in other places.”
He said his last-minute proposal — a modification of an earlier map proposed by Commissioner John Schoonmaker — was in response to concerns raised by the Knoxville NAACP and other local Black leaders about a previous plan, which would have moved the nearly all-white Sequoyah Hills neighborhood into the 1st District. That would have diluted the district’s minority voting power.
Commissioner Courtney Durrett, who represents the 2nd District, said the proposal put her “between a rock and a hard place.” She said she hated to see Lincoln Park split off from Oakwood — the two precincts form one contiguous neighborhood, and most residents would be hard-pressed to say where one begins and the other ends. But she also supported the goal of preserving the 1st District’s minority population.
“Redistricting is hard,” Durrett said. “Somebody inevitably is going to be upset with what’s happening. What do we want to do here? Do we want to preserve the minority majority in District 1? Do we want to keep neighborhoods together? Do we want to keep (the districts) compact?”
Durrett and 1st District Commissioner Dasha Lundy proposed their own map, which would keep the 2nd District more intact, but they were the only two who voted for it at Wednesday’s committee meeting. (They are also the only two Democrats on Commission.)
Michelle Ivester, president of the Oakwood-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, sent county commissioners a letter Thursday objecting to the division of the neighborhood.
“The Central/Broadway corridor has distinctly represented North Knoxville and District 2 for generations,” Ivester wrote on behalf of the association’s board. “Our community organizations, schools, and citizens are engaged and active members of the 2nd District. Oakwood-Lincoln Park is best served by remaining in the North Knox district, which has generally and historically been defined as D2.”
Politics and Communities
One thing the proposed map would not appear to affect is partisan representation. The 2nd District has trended increasingly Democratic in recent election cycles, which could have made it a target for gamesmanship by Commission’s Republican majority.
But the precincts proposed for removal in the 2nd District leaned toward former President Donald Trump by a net 338 votes in November, while those being added leaned toward President Joe Biden by 41 votes — which would make the district overall slightly more Democratic.
Other shifts have similarly small partisan effects. The West Knoxville 4th District would gain a net 590 Trump voters, the 3rd District would gain 644 Trump voters, and the 1st District would add 165 Biden voters.
But if the political effects appear small, state Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, criticized the recommended map Thursday for its impacts on communities. McKenzie formerly represented the 1st District on County Commission and was among those who had protested the idea of moving Sequoyah Hills into the district. But he said the new map splits too many established neighborhoods.
“It was ill-conceived, it was hastily done, and it was not properly vetted,” he said of the map, which Ward said Wednesday he had been “up to 3 o’clock in the morning” working on earlier in the week.
McKenzie said that while it was true that Ward’s map produced a slightly larger minority population than Durrett and Lundy’s — 50.2 percent minority versus 49.6 percent — the difference was not substantial enough to justify its disruptions.
”I don’t like that map, I don’t think that’s the answer,” McKenzie said. “I think it fractures communities.”
He noted that while the 1st District has been drawn to maximize minority representation, it has rarely included an actual majority of minority residents. He said losing Holston Hills, a traditional political anchor of East Knoxville, would hurt community cohesiveness even if it nudged the district’s minority count higher.
The recommended map now goes to County Commission for approval at two readings, which will be set for later this month. (Most likely, the first will be before Commission’s work session on Oct. 18 and the second at its monthly meeting Oct. 25.)
Durrett said she is still studying the proposed map and hasn’t decided whether or how to seek further alterations to it. She noted that while it splits Oakwood-Lincoln Park, it reunites two other North Knxoville neighborhoods, Alice Bell and Spring Hill, that have a shared neighborhood group but have been in different districts. Under the current proposal, Spring Hill would move out of the 1st District and join Alice Bell in the 2nd.
“There are losses, but there are gains,” Durrett said.