Redistricting Heats Up Mississippi Politics

Mississippi's congressional delegation may be shrinking, but that is only heating up politics in the state as two popular incumbents vie for the same district.

Slow population growth is forcing the state to lose one of its five congressional seats. As a result, Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., has found himself running against his colleague Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., for the same district.

"It's very unfortunate," said Ricky Cole, chairman of Mississippi's Democratic Party. "It's putting two good men against each other."

Adding to the intrigue, Rep. Pickering's father, U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, was nominated by President Bush to serve on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That nomination is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Earlier this month, intermediaries tried to broker an under-the-table deal whereby Senate Democrats would approve Judge Pickering if his son dropped his challenge to a state redistricting plan that would have favored his Democratic opponent.

Members of both parties admit knowing about the proposed deal, but claim they never gave it serious consideration. Neither did political observers in Mississippi.

"We found it difficult to believe that anybody on Capitol Hill would believe that either party could pull off this deal with the devil," said Sid Salter, a columnist with The Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

The redistricting plan, approved by a Democratic county judge, would have created a winding district that was 37 percent black — a traditional Democratic base. State Republicans cried foul.

"The intent was to try to create a district that would be a slam dunk for Ronnie Shows," said Jim Herring, chairman of the state Republican Party.

A federal panel intervened, ordering more traditional district lines. Pickering and Shows are now running in a district encompassing the northeast corner of Mississippi, which is 30 percent black.

Democrats tried to appeal the current district lines, but were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That led some Democrats to accuse the federal government of treading on state's rights, thereby limiting black voting power. Both sides admit the situation is a complete reversal of the Mississippi politics of 40 years ago, when civil rights leaders looked to Washington for protection against racist state laws.

"Although it appears to be a little bit quirky and bizarre, it's a positive statement about how much the South has changed," Cole said.