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Understanding Why Covington Precincts Could Change in State Representation

Written by Mark Payne, LINK Media politics and government reporter

The Kentucky House and Senate each approved plans to redistrict legislative and congressional districts across the commonwealth, which would bring signficant change to Northern Kentucky's representation in Frankfort.

Both legislative chambers in Kentucky are dominated by Republican super-majorities, impenetrable to Democratic opposition.

The House and Senate convened at 9 a.m. on Friday, with both chambers moving swiftly into committee after hearing second readings. The House Standing Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments, and Governmental Affairs considered SB2, SB3, and SB20. After committee, the bills headed back to the chambers where they passed. 

The Senate redistricting bill, SB2, has significant consequences for Northern Kentucky. Boone County will now be split into two districts, as District 11, represented by Sen. John Schickel (R-Union), will see its southern portion move into District 20 with Gallatin, Carroll, Owen, and Franklin counties, along with the southwestern portion of Kenton Co.

District 20 is also made up of Henry, Shelby, Tremble, Carroll, and part of Jefferson. 

Perhaps, more crucially, three precincts in the Covington Licking/ Riverside neighborhoods will now move from District 23 into District 24, represented by Senator Wil Schroder (R-Wilder). The 24th district also contains Campbell, Bracken, and Pendleton counties. District 23 is represented by Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill). 

The three precincts are Covington 1, 3, and 31. The districts make up roughly 60 percent of the central business district, according to Dave Meyer, who sits on the Kenton County Democratic Party Executive Committee.  

Precinct 1 borders the Ohio and Licking Rivers, 5th street, and Russell Street. Landmarks include the Roebling Bridge, Riverfront Towers, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, and the new IRS redevelopment site. Precinct 3's boundaries are 5th street to the North, the Licking River to the South, and Madison Avenue to the West. The Kenton County Library and Hotel Covington and the Baker Hunt Art Academy call District 3 home. Lastly, according to Meyer, Precinct 31 is home to Covington Latin School and St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and Covington's historically black neighborhood. 10th street binds it to the North, the Licking River to the East, 13th Street to the South, and Madison Avenue to the West.

In committee meetings and early readings of the bill, Republicans noted that Kenton County is growing. Major population shifts from eastern and western Kentucky have led to significant population growth in the state's urban areas of Lexington, Louisville, and Northern Kentucky. When Senate maps are drawn, they consider the total population of Kentucky, which is about 4.5 million divided by the number of Districts in the state, which is 38. The average population for each district must be around 118,000, with a five percent deviation. Currently, District 23 is at 124,381, and District 24 is at 119,969. 

"The map-makers can give the math as the answer to questions that really don't make sense for the other sound principles of redistricting and can easily explain in their eyes what many of us see as partisan gerrymandering," Wheatley said. 

McDaniel noted that while he is saddened to lose the three precincts in his district, he understands that it's necessary due to the population growth in Kenton County. In the 17th district, which is just below the 23rd, it also had to give up some population to make that district work, according to McDaniel, who understood it necessary to shift a few precincts from Covington to allow the maps to work. 

The 17th is represented by Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, of Georgetown. His district currently stretches from Scott County, through Grant Co., and into southern Kenton.

"In the Senate, it's kind of a different dynamic in as much as those three precincts are not really going to tip the balance," McDaniel said. "I'm not in cycle (up for election) anyway, so there's no pushing anybody out. My name doesn't go on the ballot for another couple of years, so it's hard to tell what unfolds between here and there.

"Those precincts perform pretty decently for me, politically," McDaniel said. "Given my political druthers, I would have given up other precincts inside the district, but it simply didn't work for the things we were trying to accomplish there." 

Wheatley understands that precincts must be pulled out of the county, he said, but they shouldn't be pulled out of the urban core, he said. Instead, he argues, they should be drawn from southern Kenton County, which is more rural and much more like the make of Schroder's district that is primarily rural. In Committee, Wheatley refers to the House and Senate plans as "cracking" up Covington, and specifically for the Senate plan wondered why these three precincts were selected. 

"The cracking into Covington of the three precincts for Senatorial District 24 follows no sound principles of redistricting," Wheatley said. "The community of interest of those three precincts is so outside of the community interests for the 24th senatorial district. It makes much more sense to have pulled in precincts from rural and southern Kenton County as opposed to cracking into the core of Covington." 

In the House Committee meeting on Jan. 6, Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) explained that the three districts in Covington were pulled into District 24 because the neighborhood across the Licking River in Newport, which is in Campbell County, is similar to the Licking/Riverside neighborhood. 

"That's right across the bridge from the Licking River, if I am not badly mistaken," Stivers said, "and actually, in my travels up there, I can't recall the exact name. They actually call that community on both sides of the bridge a similar name … one of the rationales you do for redistricting is communities of interest."

House Redistricting Maps Passage Brings Major Shift for NKY Dems

Along with the passage of the Senate bills in the House, the Senate also passed the House redistricting bill, HB2, on Saturday. With the passage of these bills, which now head to Gov. Andy Beshear's desk, comes significant changes for NKY House Democrats Rep. Buddy Wheatley and Rachel Roberts (D-Newport). Wheatley loses the northernmost tip of his urban district while also losing parts of West Covington. He loses these precincts to House colleague Kim Banta (R-Ft. Mitchell) of the 63rd District. 

"The crack into West Covington, the precinct that was shifted to the 63rd District, makes the least sense of any that I have heard or seen," Wheatley said. "The reason for that is the 63rd District is primarily a suburban district, and a rural district including the airport area, and the most rural parts of Boone County. Stretching it and cracking it into one precinct in Covington, when they could've, for number purposes and all the sounds principles of redistricting, could've just done the Crestview Hills precinct, which makes sense with the whole district." 

Roberts argued the process had little transparency, as Republicans introduced the House maps on Dec. 30 and passed them on Jan. 8. 

"In a time when distrust for the political process is at an all-time high, we should be working to enhance transparency and restore the public's trust," Roberts said. "Rushing through new maps, changing deadlines, drawing out already-filed challengers, it all leads to more erosion of the public trust."

Republicans argued that they requested maps and input from House minority leadership, according to House Speaker David Osborne. They also sought a special session to be called by Gov. Andy Beshear so that they would have more time to present their maps for public view. 

What Happens Now? 

Beshear has 10 days to approve or veto all the redistricting bills. If vetoed, the Republican majority can override the veto. There is also the potential for lawsuits. When the House Republicans released their race and ethnicity data on Saturday, after the bill's passage, it showed zero majority-Black districts, which is unlawful, according to the University of Kentucky's Election Law and Voting Rights Professor, Josh Douglas. 

"The Voting Rights Act Section 2 prohibits minority vote dilution," Douglas said. "If you can reasonably create a majority-Black district, then not doing so can dilute minority voting rights. And you can't add different minority groups together who may not have the same interests to satisfy the VRA."

Photo: Licking River between Covington and Newport, as seen from the Fourth Street Bridge (RCN file)