Re-drawing Georgia

Two new seats and a whole state for the carving

At the beginning of every decade, after the U.S. Census Bureau reports population shifts that require lawmakers to redraw both congressional and state legislative districts, a burst of activity transforms the General Assembly's usually quiet legislative redistricting office into a war room — or, more properly, a battleground.

Walls are covered with maps, computers whir with every conceivable combination of ways to slice and dice the electorate, and state lawmakers shuffle through the doorway with secret maps rolled under their arms, plotting to redraw the states' political boundaries in ways that will benefit them — and usually screw neighboring office-holders.

Yes, it's mean season again. State legislators are expected to return to Atlanta this summer for a special session set exclusively to redraw the districts, a task certain to create its share of headlines and back-stabbing. But they'll be scratching and scrapping for a really big prize: two brand-new congressional seats, which will increase Georgia's House delegation to 13 members.

Congressional redistricting has particularly high stakes this year because Republicans hold a slim nine-seat edge in the U.S. House of Representatives. With Georgia's House delegation numbering eight Republicans and three Democrats, the GOP has the most to lose and the Democrats — who control the General Assembly and the governor's office in a state that is marginally Democratic — have high hopes to win back some of the ground they lost after the last bout of redistricting.

Ah yes, that last bout. It was one of the nastiest redistricting fights in Georgia history. At the end of the 1980s, Democrats controlled nine of the state's 10 U.S. House seats. But George Bush the elder's Justice Department and the state's legislative black caucus worked together in 1991 and 1992 to draw intricate squiggly lines, which poured most black voters into three districts, giving Republicans the edge in eight, overwhelmingly white, conservative districts.

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Justice Department had gone overboard in its interpretation of the federal Voting Rights Act, and required Georgia to redraw the lines so that they didn't segregate so harshly by race. By that time, however, eight white Republicans and three black Democrats were firmly ensconced. None has lost a bid for re-election since.

This year, it's payback time.

"As a competitive state, it's appalling that we only have three Democrats [in Congress]," says Democratic political consultant Jim Coonan.

As a state, Georgia usually sides with Democrats. Both U.S. senators are Democratic, as is the governor. A notable exception to this rule is that Georgia went to George W. Bush last November.

The state population is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and with Democrats controlling the House, Senate and redistricting committees, Republicans are inherently at a disadvantage. In other words, it's the Democrats' game to lose.

This is a different Georgia than the one carved up in 1991, and nothing remains as absolute as it once was. Every lawmaker in the state will submit a plan for his dream district — a district that expands to include more like-minded constituents, or contracts to exclude an area whose constituents no longer fit in with party ideas.

These dream plans will include maps for the rest of the state. And, as no two of these wish-list maps are alike, clashes are unavoidable. State and U.S. lawmakers will face off against anyone, even their closest ally, if it means they could pick up an area that will guarantee an election victory.

"They'll either concentrate [similar voters] as much as possible, pack them into one district and write it off, or take the core areas and split them, dilute them amongst [their] own supporters — it's a strategic decision," Coonan says.

It's not at all clear that Democrats will make substantial gains, however. Many political experts are arguing that each party is likely to pick up one Georgia seat in the 2002 election.

That's partly because the majority of blacks are concentrated in precincts that almost unanimously vote for Democrats. It's also because Hispanics and Asians aren't as politically active and aren't expected to vote in large numbers.

"There's not a Congressional district that's 10 percent Hispanic now. So you can say the Hispanic population has really grown, but it's too small of a component. And it's a younger population overall, composed mostly of children who wouldn't be qualified to vote," says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Republicans point out that most of the state's new voters reside in the historically Republican suburbs around Atlanta.

"You can't ignore that the explosive growth has come from generally Republican areas," says Georgia Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay, adding that Republicans will be looking to carve up old districts to ensure that the two new districts are solidly GOP.

To create two new Republican House districts, Clay proposes that lawmakers cut Johnny Isakson's district in half, combine the western half with the part of Cobb County that's now in Bob Barr's district, and throw in parts of Nathan Deal's district, specifically Cherokee County.

"Then you could easily have two more Republican districts," Clay says. "Our view is simple: Draw the lines where the people have moved to and let the political chips fall where they may. Is that self-serving? Yes, it is. It's more likely there would be two more Republican districts, but I still think it's fairer to the people of Georgia."

But the growth Clay cites as justification for two new Republican districts is precisely what's generating a changing climate in the burbs that has the Dems excited.

"The growth of Hispanic and African-American Community has made Georgia a very diverse state, and I think Democrats will do very well in elections in the future," says Georgia Democratic Party Chairman David Worley. "If you look at Cobb and Gwinnett counties, they're becoming increasing diverse. And for Democrats, that's obviously a good thing."

Suburbs such as Smyrna, Sandy Springs, Mableton and Chamblee now have significant black and immigrant populations, which traditionally vote Democratic

Democratic Party hopes revolve around carving a new district out of near-north metro Atlanta in such a way to make sure that the new district, the 11th, now represented by John Linder, and the 7th, now represented by Bob Barr, all are majority Democratic.

"I think the Democratic party is best served by ensuring we have three Democratic seats with the core population of each within the Perimeter," Coonan says.

He wants to make a new district from the northern portions of the 4th and the 5th, both heavily Democratic districts of Cynthia McKinney and John Lewis, and, "using those voters, make a new district," Coonan says.

Another territory that might be ripe for Democrats is on the south side of the Perimeter surrounding the airport. Clayton County, now with more than 236,000 people, has become majority black since the last census. Democratic map-makers might combine Clayton with other working-class and substantially African American precincts in south Fulton, north Henry and east Douglas counties.

Even some more distant suburbs might be good for Democratic candidates. For a Democratic to win Linder's 11th District, Coonan must count on the growing Democratic populations in Clarke and Gwinnett counties.

"Gwinnett is changing. You have lots of families there that, if they miss two payments on their house, they'll get kicked out and lose it. That's how we win the 11th. We get a candidate who can speak to this solid middle class, to people who are not getting anything from this Bush 2 administration," says Coonan who would extend that district to Athens, which has a fairly Democratic electorate.

One thing is certain: Bob Barr is a walking target and Democratic map-makers will wage an all-out war to destroy, or at least cripple, Barr's Cobb County power base. "There are great changes taking place in Cobb and Douglas [counties]," Coonan says. "If we get the new Democratic district up to Norcross, then Smyrna goes to [Barr's] District 7, and that ought to be enough to swing the new district and the 7th District to Democrat."

But the question remains as to how far Dems can go in carving black precincts out of existing districts to create new ones. It's possible they'll be held in check by the Voting Rights Act, a safeguard against drawing new districts that would increase the under-representation of minorities.

And there's another law that's just as present in Democratic minds. It's called the law of unintended consequences and the Democrats learned all about it in 1991, the year that led to a Republican sweep that left Dems with only three Congressional seats, all held by African-Americans.

If they try to reach too far again, they could dilute the voting strength in their key black precincts and inadvertently hand Sanford Bishop, Cynthia McKinney or John Lewis a loss.