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Redistricting gives Republicans power beyond scope of state politics

ATLANTA --- If next year's elections go as expected by both political parties, Republicans could capture the super majority they need in the Legislature to pass anything they want without a single Democratic vote, and they could also expand their control into local governments they've been shut out of.

Most large cities in Georgia are Democratic strongholds since Republicans prefer to live in the suburbs or countryside. Ever since Republicans won the governor's office and began taking over other pieces of state government, they have been frustrated by their inability to have an impact in the affairs of cities like Atlanta, Macon and Athens.

They still may not win local, county-commission elections, but by splitting the counties with portions of legislative districts where Republicans can win, they ensure that GOP lawmakers get a veto on local legislation, bills that only affect one city or county. Examples of local legislation would be a measure to make city races partisan or one to raise the hotel-motel tax for a tourism project.

In Atlanta, having local politicians control Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Grady Hospital and MARTA has nagged at Republican lawmakers who think they could do a better job. Soon, they may get their chance.

In Macon, the issue is city-county consolidation that many civic leaders there favor.

In Athens where so many of Republican legislators spent part of their early adulthood and many fall Saturdays since, it's general antagonism to the city's liberal orientation and tax policy.

Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, the Sharpsburg Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, says the addition of the GOP fingers reaching into these urban domains of the Democrats is "an innocent byproduct" of drawing districts that reflect population shifts. He has given the same answer no matter how many times he's been asked.

The leadership simply instructed him to draw fair maps that conform to the legal requirements of size and race, he said. And so he met with individual senators of both parties, asked them to rank their preferences for their own district, and put the lines where they made sense.

"The Senate drew this map. It was just my job to put together the pieces," he said, adding that he did it in state offices, not the paneled conference room of some exclusive law firm.

The political strategist hired by the Senate leadership, Joel McElhannon, says he had no input and never saw the maps until they were released to the public.

Rep. Roger Lane, the Darien Republican in charge of the House map drawing, also argues the new districts were almost inevitable.

When asked in his committee about the Athens split, he said he tried to meet the wishes of the citizens there who asked to be kept whole.

"Those districts had to take population from other counties that were overpopulated," he said. "... Everything was done to comply with (local wishes) as much as we could given the demographics that we had and to comply with the one-person-one vote and all the other legal concerns."

The demographics Lane mentioned boils down to the fact that since the last census the suburbs where the white Republicans live grew faster than urban areas where blacks live, he argues.

To get districts the same size requires stretching across county lines, especially since Athens is in the county with the smallest geography in the state.

In Athens, that resulted in two GOP districts and one Democratic one. That Democratic district is represented now by a black man, but a majority of its population is white, so the Voting Rights Act requirement on majority-minority districts wasn't a constraint there.

In Atlanta, the map makers had to ensure that there was no reduction in the number of districts where racial minorities constitute a majority. Since 19 of the 20 districts that grew the slowest were represented by Democrats, it's not surprising that they would be radically changed. And since half of the Democrats are women, those changes were bound to fall on female lawmakers heavily, according to Jan Jones, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the House.

However, the choices Lane and Seabaugh made may not have been entirely unavoidable considering fewer counties were split in the maps made separately by both the Democrats and a coalition of goups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. But then they used a different assumption about the number of minority-majority districts that must be maintained under the Voting Rights Act. The coalition and the Democrats only sought to preserve the 42 in the House found on the map currently in effect while the Republicans said the minimum is the 49 with the seven that evolved since the current map was drawn.

Whatever the reasons, the Republicans drew the districts they drew, and they have the votes to pass them.

If the courts don't invalidate them, the new districts will start shaping local politics almost immediately because candidates are already announcing for races that appear to be ripe with opportunity for them.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, August 25, 2011

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