GEORGIA REDISTRICTING Legislative maps go public State House plan to be placed online Friday. Minority leader says GOP aims to put white Democrats out of office.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA) - August 10, 2011
Author: Aaron Gould Sheinin

The public will get its first glance at proposed maps for state House members on Friday when lawmakers release the first drafts in advance of next week's special session.

The maps will be available online for public inspection just as the acrimony ahead of the redistricting session blooms. House Democrats this week accused ruling Republicans of using the new maps to purge the state of white Democrats, a charge Republicans vehemently denied. The maps themselves, however, could determine who's right.

"We have a map that discriminates, that polarizes, that purges and uses the Voting Rights Act as the justification," House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said Monday night.

Republican House Speaker David Ralston, however, said he has included Abrams in their planning and gave her an idea of "what we were doing and thinking about doing."

"I'm just really disappointed" at the accusation, Ralston said. "I don't think she gives Georgia credit for being bigger than she thinks it is."

Before maps are released or approved, however, Gov. Nathan Deal must officially call lawmakers back to session. While the governor -- who has sole authority to bring the General Assembly back -- has said the special session would start Aug. 15, he has not yet signed the order.

Deal will take that final step today at a 9:30 a.m. news conference. It is possible that other issues will be tackled by lawmakers in addition to redistricting, but the governor's office has not released those details.

But regardless of what else is on the agenda, it is the process of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts that will dominate the term. Friday's planned release of proposed House districts will be the first opportunity for anyone outside of the General Assembly to get a sense of what is on the minds of Republican leaders who control the reapportionment process.

Redistricting is the every-10-year process following the census where states redraw the lines of legislative districts. It is a hugely important process to elected officials as a minor change in district lines can spell the difference between re-election and forced retirement.

Republicans dominate the process in Georgia by virtue of their control of the House, Senate and governor's office. But Georgia is also one of nine states covered by Section V of the Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval for any change in election law.

Ralston said the statewide maps would be posted to the reapportionment committee's website on Friday. Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, said he hopes to make the Senate's maps public on Friday, too.

Seabaugh said he is still meeting with individual senators; he estimated he has met with 51 of 55 senators (there is one vacancy in the 56-seat Senate).

William Perry, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, has been closely monitoring the process. He said he has spoken often with Seabaugh and believes senators will honor their promise for public review before a vote.

What is unlikely to be released Friday are proposed congressional maps. The state gained a 14th seat in the U.S. House following last year's census. While it is a certainty that the new seat will be based in North Georgia, the parameters of the district have not been made public.

The tension, thus far, lies in the proposed House plan and the impact it could have by reducing the number of white Democrats in the Legislature.

Republicans, Abrams said, plan to create 49 "majority-minority" House districts, an increase of seven. "Almost without exception in the Fulton-DeKalb area, if you are a white Democrat who is near an African-American, you were paired and you are going to have to run against one another."

Abrams said Rep. Pat Gardener, D-Atlanta, who is white, is being paired with Rep. Rashad Taylor, D-Atlanta, who is black. Rep. Stephanie Benfield, D-Atlanta, who is white, is being paired with Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, who is black. The same goes for white Reps. Elly Dobbs, D-Atlanta, and Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta, who are being paired, respectively, with black Reps. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, and Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville.

In other cases, Rep. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, both of whom are white, are having their districts combined, Abrams said, and black Reps. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta, are also being combined.

Rep. Roger Lane, R-Darien, chairman of the House committee on redistricting, said Abrams' comments don't have "any validity" and weren't worthy of comment. But Ralston, with whom Abrams has enjoyed a positive relationship, said he was "disappointed Democratic leadership in the House would stoop this low."

As of today there are 63 Democrats in the 180-seat House, with 115 Republicans, one independent and one vacancy. Of those 63 Democrats, 22 are white. According to Abrams, the GOP proposed maps would likely result in there being only 10 white Democrats elected in the House.

Lane, the GOP leader of the redistricting process in the House, said the census shows the state has 49 majority-minority districts in the House. "Under the Voting Rights Act we have a legal requirement to try and maintain those 49 districts," Lane said. "We have to make those districts as equal in population as possible and stay at 49."