JEFFERSON CITY — Faced with the prospect of losing a U.S. House seat, St. Louis Democrats say one of their top priorities will be ensuring that the state's 1st Congressional District retains its black plurality when the Republican-dominated legislature redraws districts next session.
The 1st District, represented by William Lacy Clay Jr., is the only congressional district in Missouri in which blacks comprise a plurality of voters — just under 50 percent of the total population — and state legislators from that district argue it ought to stay that way.
"It would be devastating to lose this congressional district," said Rep. Steve Webb, D-St. Louis. Webb, the head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said ensuring a continued black plurality in the first district was "extremely important."
Rep. Jamillah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, echoed that assessment.
"When it comes to representing the interests of African-Americans — especially in the city of St. Louis — then it's (the continued existence of the 1st District) very serious, and I think that if we have to fight for it, we'll fight for it to the end," Nasheed said, while predicting it wouldn't come to that.
Preserving Missouri's two black congressional districts was the dominant issue the last time Missouri's legislature had to eliminate a congressional district, 30 years ago.
At the time, Democrats held a majority in the legislature but fought among themselves over protecting two St. Louis-area Democratic congressmen — one black and one white. The dispute involved the St. Louis city district held by Clay's father, William Clay, and St. Louis County's Bob Young.
In the end, the legislature was unable to pass a redistricting plan, and the task fell to a panel of federal judges.
After enjoying record success in last month's midterm election, Missouri Republicans find themselves in a position to lead the redistricting process next year. That could be bad news for Missouri's three Democratic congressmen, one of whom could be out of a job if Missouri, as expected, loses a House seat.
In the once-a-decade process, state legislatures redraw congressional districts based on population shifts revealed in the census.
Webb said he was hopeful that Missouri might not lose a House seat but, if push came to shove, he's got his congressman's back.
"I don't want to see any of the Democratic districts gone, but if I had to choose a district to stay, I'm going to choose Congressman Clay's," Webb said.
The Republican named to become chairman of the House committee charged with redistricting vowed to oversee a bipartisan process.
"We're going to do it in a way that is professional and transparent, and we're going to build a map that fairly and adequately represents all Missourians," said Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County.
Nasheed said she believed the chairman.
"I believe Diehl is a man of his word, and so I have no qualms about how he's going to handle the redistricting process," she said. "I truly believe he's going to be coming to the table looking for cooperation."
The feeling was more reserved on the other side of the state.
"I hope the process certainly is a fair one. We'll have to see," said Rep. Shalonn Curls, D-Kansas City, who said she will serve on the redistricting committee.
Curls said she was heartened by a cordial introductory meeting of the committee earlier this fall.
That meeting was held before the Republicans' big election night in November, though, and Curls acknowledged the new political reality in Jefferson City.
"I think this is a new beginning for any of us," Curls said. "It'll be a new direction for us as Democrats to see the way this process takes place, especially in light of the disparity in numbers" between Democrats and Republicans in the new legislature.
But even if Missouri Republicans are able to effectively translate their large majorities into a favorable redistricting plan, that's no guarantee of political domination.
"Will this give Republicans a leg up in the next election cycle? Yes, but it's been overstated and can easily be exaggerated," explained Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
He noted that other factors, including the candidates in each district and the mood of the electorate, tend to play a greater role in determining election results.
"You can't gerrymander the other party into oblivion," Storey said.
And the effect of redistricting tends to decrease over time. A district that is drawn to be reliably Democratic or Republican could, over the course of the ensuing decade, become more balanced because of demographic and ideological changes among the district's voters.
"People move and political opinions change, so as the decade goes on, the effects of redistricting are diminished," Storey said.
After Rep. Ike Skelton's loss to Vicky Hartzler in the 4th Congressional District, Missouri's nine-member House delegation consists of just three Democrats. Those congressmen — Russ Carnahan in the St. Louis suburbs, William Lacy Clay Jr. in St. Louis itself and Emanuel Cleaver in Kansas City — are most likely to see their districts eliminated in any redistricting.
Diehl acknowledged the delicacy of the situation.
"Whenever something like this happens, there are a lot of people who are nervous about it," Diehl said. "I'm sure during the process, there are going to be disagreements."
Any redistricting bill passed by the legislature can be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. But Republicans will have the required two-thirds majority in the Senate to override a gubernatorial veto and are just three votes short of the two-thirds majority in the House.
If Nixon does veto any Republican plan, Diehl expressed confidence his party has the strength to override it.
"That prognosis looks better now than it did 60 days ago," Diehl said, in reference to the Republicans' good showing in last month's election.
The Democrats aren't ready to be steamrolled, though. When asked whether Democrats have been forming a plan for dealing with Republicans, Curls said not to count the Democrats out.
"That clearly has been something that has been discussed within our caucus," Curls said. "We want to remain as relevant as we can, in spite of our numbers."