News - Welcome to the monkey house

Democrats go ape in map-making melee

This summer, in movie theaters across Atlanta and in smoke-filled rooms downtown, a mismatched pair of power-mad primates is resurrecting the rhetorical spirit of the late Barry Goldwater.

Now playing at area multiplexes: wild-eyed Gen. Thade (Tim Roth) in Planet of the Apes. Fueled by a hatred of humans and desperate for absolute power, the out-of-control chimp commander puts his spin on Goldwater's signature utterance. "Extremism in the defense of apes," he snarls, "is no vice."

Now playing at the Gold Dome: well-fed Gen. Gerrymander (Roy Barnes) in "State of the Democrats." Fueled by a hatred of Republicans and desperate for absolute power, the fiercely partisan governor hasn't started quoting GOP icons, but he is sending an unmistakably Goldwater-style message in this summer's redistricting shakedown.

For Gen. Gerrymander, extremism in the defense of Democrats is no vice. Or so he thinks.

In an unprecedented display of executive meddling, Barnes is brazenly going where governors once feared to tread. He has set himself up as de facto prime minister, the ultimate authority over the formerly legislative process of redistricting.

After months of secret plotting and computer modeling, Barnes and his legislative lackeys created a grotesquely gerrymandered state Senate district map — and a design debacle equal to the new state flag. Jigsaw-puzzle pieces are more compact than Barnes' Senate districts, which dip, dive and stretch across numerous counties to corral just the right voters.

One ugly duckling district includes parts of 11 counties between Augusta and Macon. Another features two mountainous areas connected by a lengthy land bridge that is, at 740 feet, slightly wider than two football fields are long. Barnes' map divides 88 counties and 175 local precincts.

Yet, hideous as the map is, the aim it represents — disenfranchising GOP voters — is even more repugnant. Barnes wants to jam as many Republicans as possible in as few districts as possible while spreading out some now-sizable Democratic majorities to create more donkey-friendly districts.

And Democrats have already shown they can manipulate district lines to depress GOP strength. Last year, for example, Republican Senate candidates got 200,000 more total votes than their Democratic opponents but wound up being out-elected 24-32.

How does Barnes plan to produce more of the same? Well, let's say Georgia has 1,000 voters — 500 Democrats and 500 Republicans. And let's further say the state has 10 districts with 100 voters in each. Slice and dice the electorate carefully enough and you could create eight districts divided 55/45 in the Democrats' favor and two districts divided 70/30 in the Republicans' favor. That's Barnes' plan in a nutshell.

Gen. Gerrymander also is mounting an all-out assault on voters' will in the House. He's floating a plan to create 22 multi-member districts across the state, with voters in each selecting as many as five representatives.

Such mega districts are designed to protect Democrats like party-hopper Kathy Ashe of Atlanta, who bolted the GOP after last year's election. Merging her marginally Republican district with two heavily Democratic ones would deny the GOP faithful who elected her any chance of exercising their will — and exacting their revenge — at the ballot box.

Proving that even the American Civil Liberties Union stumbles into the truth now and then, ACLU voting rights attorney Laughlin McDonald told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Barnes' proposed mega-districts are like a "loaded gun" with "great potential for mischief."

Republican legislators, meanwhile, have been totally shut out, left to wander in the desert like the dazed band of half-starved humans on the planet of the apes. The extreme conditions have taken a toll on the party's frustrated leaders, but Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah was spot on when he ripped Barnes' Senate map as "stunning in its arrogance and breathtaking in its brutality."

Georgia GOP Chairman Ralph Reed may yet play inspiring astronaut to his dispirited troops with a promised legal fight — if he makes the difficult court challenge merely the first battle in a sustained drive to create widespread public disgust with Barnes' mean-spirited and relentless partisanship.

Beyond Goldwater, Generals Thade and Gerrymander seem to share the same crack makeup artist. With the governor's latest anti-democratic power grab, Republicans may finally get a chance to rip off Barnes' decent-country-lawyer mask and show voters the dirty-pool political ape underneath.??

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