BOUNDARIES SHIFT DISTRICT DEMOGRAPHY \ - BLACK MAJORITIES REDUCED FOR MOST LOCAL LEGISLATORS

Augusta Chronicle, The (GA) - August 21, 2011
Author: Susan McCord

Augusta's legislative delegation was willing to sacrifice one of its own during the redistricting process, in an effort to preserve communities of interest and keep the boundaries of Augusta-Richmond County intact.

Instead, according to delegation chairman Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, the delegation saw three of its five members' districts drawn out into other counties, in moves that preserved but lessened the districts' minority-majority makeup while breaking up communities.

Howard's new district, for instance, lost much of its former south Augusta territory while adding a dozen new precincts formerly represented by Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.

The district now spans from downtown west along Washington Road to the Columbia County line, taking in neighborhoods around Lake Olmstead and National Hills along with the city's new retail development, Village at Riverwatch.

Shaped like a backwards "c," the new district takes in Howard's Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard address, then follows Gordon Highway and Wrightsboro Road west to Bobby Jones Expressway.

Surrounded by Howard's district is Sims' revised west Augusta territory, which now includes
all of the city's Summerville district and west Augusta but even more of Martinez, in Columbia County.

In the process, Howard's district decreased from 67 percent black to 57 percent, with just 55 percent of the black population of voting age.

Dropping from nearly 64 percent black to 56 percent, Augusta Rep. Quincy Murphy's new westside district now encompasses all of Fort Gordon and a large swath of Jefferson County, whose
current Democratic House member found himself in a new district with another Democrat.

Augusta Rep. Earnest Smith's new district lost some of its Hephzibah territory to Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah, as Smith's district dropped from 56 percent black to 55 percent.

Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham, a
longtime political observer, said the district line changes will affect the legislators' re-election chances.

Smith's narrow 51 percent majority black voting-age population, for example, "puts him in a situation where he could have a tough time, depending on the (opposing) candidate," Brigham said.

Frazier's was the only Augusta district to increase its minority population, growing from 52 percent to 61 percent on the new maps, but it took in all of Burke County in the process.

While preserving minority-majority districts in cities is touted by legislative map makers as necessary under the federal Voting Rights Act, Howard says it could have been done differently.

"I have no problem representing anyone in this city, but what happened is you've broken up a community of interest," said Howard, whose mother and father once held his seat, which he first won in 2005.

Howard said keeping Augusta-Richmond County intact was key, and that the Washington Road area
he gained has more in common with Sims' new Augusta territory than do Sims' Columbia County additions.

With the area under by about 45,000 residents - the approximate size of a new House district - when redistricting work began, Howard said the delegation offered to give up a seat but was declined.

"This was something that was discussed among all the delegation members," he said. "We knew that a sacrifice would have had to be made on one of our parts."

Who that "sacrificial lamb" was to be, however, was never decided because the delegation's offer was ignored, Howard said.

"We offered it to the chairman; he would not take our offer," he said.

With federal approval of the maps still looming, their completion at last allows local officials to begin redrawing Augusta Commission and Richmond County Board of Education district lines based on 2010 census data. Howard said the process couldn't begin until legislators completed their work in Atlanta.

A committee of four legislators, four school board members, four commissioners and two residents has yet to meet to begin the process.