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By EMILY WAGSTER
To hear some people tell it, Mississippiâ€™s legislative redistricting process is one step toward a fiery political Apocalypse.
Legislators are trying to draw new district lines to reflect population changes revealed by the 2010 Census, including growth in DeSoto County just south of Memphis, Tenn., and loss of population in economically struggling parts of the Delta.
Republicans accuse Democrats of seeking unfair partisan advantage to hold onto the top leadership post in the 122-member House.
Some Democrats accuse Republicans of unfairly trying to maintain or even broaden the GOP majority in the 52-member Senate â€” although that criticism has not been as loud.
Redistricting carries high political stakes because the party controlling each chamber will set the tone for policy debates during the coming decade, on everything from school funding to economic development.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, whoâ€™s running for governor this year, said of redistricting: â€śThis is the most important vote we will take for the next 10 years.â€ť
Many outside the Capitol might scoff, but Bryantâ€™s assessment might not be a much of an exaggeration.
If Democrats can maintain something at or near their current 69-53 advantage over Republicans in the House, theyâ€™re almost certain to maintain the chamberâ€™s top job. The House speaker is elected by House members. As presiding officer, the speaker appoints committee chairmen â€” a critical decision that can determine whether certain bills eventually live or die, because chairmen control the fate of legislation.
The current speaker, Democrat Billy McCoy of Rienzi, hasnâ€™t said whether heâ€™s seeking a ninth four-year term in the House and, if so, whether heâ€™s seeking a third term as speaker. Republicans tried to oust McCoy as speaker at the beginning of this term, and they paid a heavy price: McCoy didnâ€™t appoint a single Republican to chair a committee. McCoy did appoint a record number of black Democrats as committee chairmen â€” a standard practice of rewarding political allies.
A conservative website that aims to oust McCoy is run by Starkville resident Ricky Bishop and Pascagoula City Councilman Frank Corder. The site, www.firemccoy.com, is modeled after the GOPâ€™s â€śFire Pelosiâ€ť slogan that targeted then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2010.
â€śUnder the reign of Billy McCoy thereâ€™s no such thing as true bi-partisanship in Jackson,â€ť the firemccoy.com site says. â€śPartisan politics is the name of the game for McCoy where if you arenâ€™t a member of the Speakerâ€™s band of liberal merry men you are intentionally kept out of the loop.â€ť
Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, said this past week that Mississippi has a long and unpleasant history of people using racial code words to advance their own political agendas. Frazier, who is black, told his Senate colleagues that demagogues used â€śthe N wordâ€ť in the old days, later switching to phrases like â€śultra liberalâ€ť to criticize white politicians they saw as too friendly to black people.
Frazier said â€śBilly McCoyâ€ť is becoming such a code phrase among some groups in the redistricting debate, and thatâ€™s very unfair. Frazier said McCoy has worked for decades to advance education and improve highways, helping all races.
â€śBilly McCoy is a decent individual,â€ť Frazier said. â€śI hate to see him demonized in this process.â€ť
The NAACP has filed a lawsuit in federal court to try to block elections in the current legislative districts that have been used for most of the past decade, saying the districts are not balanced by population. With just under two weeks remaining in the 2011 legislative session, itâ€™s not at all clear whether lawmakers will finish drawing new districts in time for this yearâ€™s round of state elections.