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Base closings part of redistricting testimony

By Staff
From staff, wire reports
Dec. 18, 2001
JACKSON  The specter of military base closings moved onto the political agenda again Monday as a Hinds County judge heard testimony in Mississippi's congressional redistricting case.
Among the witnesses was Bill Crawford of Meridian, head of The Montgomery Institute, who said past and present 3rd District congressmen have been successful in fighting for military bases in Meridian and Columbus.
Crawford, who headed successful efforts to save Naval Air Station Meridian from the federal chopping block in the 1990s, testified Monday that putting the Meridian base and Columbus Air Force Base into separate congressional districts now would give the military installations more leverage should they again be considered for closing.
Crawford's testimony came in the third day of a Hinds County Chancery Court trial. Judge Patricia Wise will decide how to carve Mississippi into four new congressional districts.
The state is losing one of its five congressional seats because of slow population growth in the last decade, and legislators have not agreed on how to draw a new plan.
In separate action Monday, lawyers for a group of Republicans filed papers asking federal court to block the chancery court trial.
The lawyers say the process of deciding redistricting in chancery court has not been approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees Mississippi election matters to ensure fairness to minorities.
The state Supreme Court last week said redistricting could be heard in chancery court.
On the stand in Wise's courtroom Monday, Crawford said former U.S. Rep. G.V. Sonny'' Montgomery, D-Miss., a leader in military matters, was a strong advocate for the bases in Meridian and Columbus. Crawford said the current congressman, Republican Chip Pickering, has continued to provide that support.
But by putting the bases in separate districts, you have the best chance to keep them all if ever you are pulled to choose between the two,'' said Crawford, who ran unsuccessfully for the 3rd District post as a Republican in 1996 when Montgomery retired.
Crawford is president of the state College Board and executive director of the Montgomery Institute, a nonprofit group recently established to promote leadership development in east Mississippi and west Alabama.
Earlier Monday, former state Sen. Henry Kirksey of Jackson testified about proposed redistricting maps, including his own.
He told the court it was a terrible idea to stretch a north Mississippi congressional district into central counties, as Democratic plaintiffs are advocating.
I hate those corridors,'' Kirksey testified. It really just creates problems.''
Kirksey unveiled a plan in October that would divide the state into four regional districts north, Delta, central and south.
Kirksey is a Democrat and has run for office as an independent, but his plan now has been embraced by Republicans. Kirksey's proposed central district consists mostly of territory now represented by Republican Chip Pickering and would include only a small portion of the area now represented by Democrat Ronnie Shows.
Kirksey, 86, identified himself as a Democrat during his testimony Monday but said his plan was not tilted toward any party.
Rob McDuff, attorney for the Democrats who filed the chancery action, said Monday the Kirksey plan would mean that Shows would keep only five of his current 15 counties while Pickering would keep all or part of 18 of his current 19 counties.
Legislators deadlocked last month over how over how to combine areas now represented by Pickering and Shows, the state's two newest congressmen.
The trial is expected to continue through Wednesday. Wise has said she hopes to file a plan by late this Friday.
Monday's appeal to federal court seeking to stop the proceedings was filed on behalf of Republicans who earlier had earlier asked the redistricting be settled in U.S. District Court.
Three federal judges handling the GOP lawsuit have said they'll take over the redistricting process Jan. 7 if they don't see signs that state authorities can resolve the problem before a March 1 qualifying deadline for congressional candidates.
The Justice Department must approve Mississippi's new districts. Officials say that could take up to two months.