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GOP is going out of its way to prove it 's not the other guys

ATLANTA --- Republican legislators are going to great lengths to demonstrate they're not like Democrats when it comes to redistricting.

The House and Senate issued news releases Friday -- that clearly had the same author -- that sought to justify the revised legislative districts. The chairwoman of the state party also issued a statement moments later praising the districts.

The legislative releases point out that fewer minority-party lawmakers were drawn into the same districts than 10 years ago when the Democrats revised the maps. Both new maps split fewer counties than both the Democrats' maps and the one drawn by a federal court to replace the Democratic maps it invalidated.

Republicans also released their proposed maps before the special session convened Monday, noting that Democrats only released theirs moments before legislative committees voted on them.

Ten years ago, the Democratic Party realized that trends were going against it. Party operatives attempted to stretch the bounds of legal restrictions to produce maps where they could hold onto power.

Federal courts ruled their stretching went too far. Voters agreed, adding the gerrymandering to a growing list of indictments that eventually swamped Roy Barnes' hopes for re-election as governor in 2002 and ousted other powerful Democrats, including Speaker Tom Murphy of Bremen and Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker of Augusta.

"We have learned the lessons of 2001 and created a plan that fairly represents the people, not one designed solely to achieve a political outcome," said current Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.

It's easier to heed that lesson when trends favor your party, notes Rep. Roger Lane, the chairman of the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee.

"It would be kind of foolish not to be magnanimous because the demographics are there," said Lane, R-Darien. "The courts drew the maps we have now, and Republicans have won."

Today's Democrats say the GOP goal might not be holding onto power but taking more. They accuse Republicans of manipulating the boundaries to gain the super majority needed to pass constitutional amendments without Democrats' votes.

House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, who is black, said Republicans created more districts in which blacks are the majority to grab two-thirds of the seats.

"The artificial increase in majority-minority districts fails to help minority voters if they are shut out of power in a Republican super-majority," she said.

She knows as well as Republicans that blacks reliably vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Squeezing more into a district to make it majority black leaves the district they were in leaning toward the GOP.

Republicans say they had no choice under the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits "retrogression," a reduction in "majority-minority" districts.

At least one expert agrees. Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor who was called to federal court as an expert witness by lawyers defending the Democrats' maps 10 years ago, says Abrams is misreading the law. Courts look at the number of majority-minority districts from the most recent census to calculate retrogression, not the previous maps, as Abrams contents.

Some creative gerrymandering might have prevented Democrats from having to face each other in the same districts, Bullock notes, but it comes with the territory.

"If you're the minority party, you can't expect the majority party to go to these extremes to save your members," he said.

Besides the Democrats paired in the same districts, many more might have been left in areas that tilt GOP.

The group Common Cause blasted the proposed maps for splitting up counties, they say, for partisan advantage. At the public hearings held by the legislative committees, Rockdale County, the second smallest geographically, sent representatives pleading to be kept wholly in one district. It was sliced six ways in the map released Friday.

"The Democrats are taking a harsh stance in an attempt to protect their party's interests while the Republicans drew maps to strengthen their interests," said William Perry, Common Cause's executive director. "Lost in all of this is the importance of the people that live in these districts."

It's probably unreasonable to expect partisan politicians to behave in a nonpartisan way. What we have instead is bipartisan committees in the House and Senate. This week, they are holding hearings on the maps. They might get so much static that they'll wish they had kept the maps under wraps until the vote, like the Democrats did.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering Georgia government since 1998. Reach him at walter.jones@, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, August 18, 2011

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