Race matters

DeKalb commissioner claims re-districting was black and white

It was hard to hear much about the re-drawing of Georgia’s election districts above all the Republican gnashing of teeth.

For sure, no one was paying much attention to what DeKalb Commissioner Jacqueline Scott was saying in March when new lines for the DeKalb Commission were passed. People might be paying attention now.

That’s because there’s a very real chance that a federal lawsuit Scott recently filed will halt the scheduled Aug. 20 primary vote for commissioners in DeKalb Districts 2, 3 and 7. Scott maintains that the state Legislature moved her precinct from District 3 into District 5, which prevents her from running for the seat when it comes up for election this year, and they did it because she’s white. The delegation also violated state and federal Constitutional protections by singling her out for punishment without a judicial trial, the suit claims.

As for the District 5 seat, it won’t be decided again until 2004, and Commissioner William Brown will have the power of incumbency to rely on should Scott wait around for a run at him.

Scott might have a case.

On its face, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for moving her precinct from 3 into 5. First of all, it can’t be a partisan issue. Scott is a Democrat just like the majority on the commission and just like the leaders of DeKalb’s legislative delegation, Rep. Stan Watson and Sen. Nadine Thomas.

So then you look at population. Her southwest DeKalb district has fewer registered voters than District 5, so re-writing the lines doesn’t solve any problems of representation.

Making the situation even weirder is that if there are indeed forces within DeKalb’s power structure that really want to get rid of Scott, all they probably would have had to do is to run a credible, well-financed black candidate against her. Then they could have avoided this entire mess. At the very least, such a race certainly would have been close. Scott’s district, for which she has been elected to three terms, is 86 percent black.

The tough part will be proving that the decision to remove Scott’s precinct from her district was definitively racial in nature. Josh Archer, a partner with the law firm Meadows, Ichter & Bowers, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Scott, said he hopes to “fast track” the litigation when they meet with a judge.

“We plan to depose several members of the delegation,” Archer says. “If we get the statements under oath that are consistent with what we got during our investigation, we think we can prove it.”

On its face, the wrangling that took place within DeKalb’s delegation, pitting Democrat against Democrat, seems unusual. Also working against the state is a statement made by Watson in the April 3 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he is paraphrased as saying that the decision to redraw Scott’s District 3 lines was deliberate. Watson says he was misquoted and that the AJC printed a retraction, but CL has been unable to find any correction of the statement. Watson would not comment on the lawsuit.

The initial map offered by Thomas in the Senate “adversely affected” all four white female members of the commission, drawing District 1 Commissioner Elaine Boyer and Scott out of their districts, the suit alleges. But Sens. Joe Burton, Bart Ladd and Mike Polak, all white males, refused to sign the bill. Thomas was willing to compromise on the map when it came to Commissioners Gale Walldorff, Judy Yates and Boyer, but “any amendments related to ... Scott were off the table,” the suit alleges. The map was then redrawn and approved with only Scott without a political home before being passed on to the House.

In the House, three Democrats and three Republicans, all of whom are white save for Barbara J. Mobley, voted against the reapportionment plan. Signing the bill were seven black representatives and two white House members, Karla Lea Drenner and Michele Henson.

Henson declined to comment on the issue, but Drenner says she did not detect anything racial about the vote. She points out that Scott does not represent people in her district, and says that ultimately the decision on removing her precinct was made by the section of the delegation that represents south DeKalb.

“What it boils down to is: Do you have the support of your delegation or not?” Drenner says. “[The map] did pass the Justice Department review. They make the determination if it is racially biased or not.”

However, during reapportionment, the Justice Department is usually looking for evidence that minority representation has been diluted and not for a case such as Scott’s. A majority of the representatives who sided against the map contacted by CL say they opposed it simply because they didn’t think it was right to remove a sitting commissioner. Voters, they say, should have that responsibility.

Asked if he thought Thomas and Watson had it in for Scott, Rep. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) says he felt she was definitely targeted. Asked if it was racially motivated, Millar says, “I got that impression.”

“I did vote against, because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” says Rep. Doug Teper, who abstained from a vote for a competing map offered by Rep. Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield. “It came out of the blue, and it looked like it was done purposely to put her out. [But] just because something isn’t right doesn’t make it illegal.”