Metro Self-preservation goal of Georgia redistricting

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA) - August 4, 2011
Author: Jim Galloway

Fresh from rescuing the nation from economic calamity, Georgia's members of Congress will spend the next few weeks indulging in self-preservation. We are 10 days away from a special session of the Legislature assigned the task of redrawing Georgia's political boundaries.

Americans often think of democracy as the process by which voters pick their leaders. Redistricting is the B-side of that record --the once-in-a-decade chance for many incumbent politicians to pick their voters, and thus preserve their hold on power.

This is the first time in Georgia history that Republicans will have start-to-finish control of the process, which will be primarily, but not entirely, driven by last year's census.

Under Democratic rule, GOP lawmakers criticized a process that was ruthless and secretive. Republicans promise to conduct themselves more openly. But score-settling will still be the rule -- and the targets won't always be Democratic. When they arrive in Atlanta, state lawmakers will first draw new boundaries for themselves. House and Senate members are already being summoned to the Capitol for glimpses of their new districts.

Those lawmakers who represent lightly populated South Georgia are most nervous. In the House, word from the coast is that, in a preliminary draft, state Rep. Mark Hatfield, a very conservative Republican from Ware County, has been paired in the same district with Jason Spencer, a Republican from more populated Camden County. The fact that Hatfield last year pushed legislation to force President Barack Obama to make public his birth certificate, even as Georgia Republicans were pressing the White House for federal cash to dredge the Port of Savannah, obviously has nothing to do with the cartographer's decision.

In the Senate, Democrat George Hooks of Americus, the chamber's longest-serving member and occupant of the seat once held by Jimmy Carter, has a target on his back. "This'll be my sixth time. It's always an iffy thing, particularly in rural Georgia. This isn't my first rodeo," he said.

Only after local housekeeping is finished will our Republican-dominated Legislature move on to its most important business -- the redrawing of the state's congressional districts. The goal will be to reinforce the GOP majority in the U.S. House for the next 10 years.

Figures close to the congressional redistricting process, who aren't authorized to speak on the topic, have sketched out some highlights to watch for:

Lawmakers will be asked to squeeze a new, 14th congressional district into the state, to reflect Georgia's growing population. But it won't actually be called the 14th. It will be called the new 9th, and it will have a Gainesville base -- a move that no doubt reflects the sentiment of Gov. Nathan Deal, who held the seat until last year.

John Barrow of Savannah, the last white Democrat from the Deep South in Congress, will be the focus of major attention. In 2006, Republicans forced Barrow, a native of Athens, to shift his residence by cutting Clarke County out of his 12th District. They could now try to exile him from Savannah as well -- if Republican Jack Kingston is willing to accept Democrat-laden north Chatham County into his district. But that's a hard sell.

Sanford Bishop, the Albany Democrat who narrowly escaped defeat in 2010, could come out of redistricting stronger by picking up African-American voters in Macon and the surrounding area. That in turn, would strengthen the re-election chances of GOP rookie Austin Scott of Tifton in his 8th District.

Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, wants his 7th District to include the whole of Gwinnett County. But Gwinnett's rapidly changing demographics could preclude that.

The top priority of Phil Gingrey, the Republican from Marietta, is the retention of Rome and Floyd County in his 11th District. This is another difficult task, given that U.S. Rep. Tom Graves' district -- which will be rechristened the new 14th -- will have to shift south.

The population-shy 5th District of Democrat John Lewis, dominated by Atlanta, will likely expand eastward into DeKalb County. Likewise, the 4th District of Democrat Hank Johnson may be diverted eastward into Rockdale and Newton counties.

U.S. Rep. Tom Price of the 6th District currently represents Cherokee County, the whole of north Fulton County and slices of both Cobb and DeKalb counties. Look for Price to be drawn out of Cherokee, and farther into DeKalb -- perhaps down to Dunwoody. Now, you would think that, if Republicans really wanted to condense Price's district, they could simply push the Roswell congressman's district into Sandy Springs and Buckhead. This won't happen, for three reasons:

Lewis, a civil rights-era hero, wants to represent the whole of Atlanta. Aggravating him won't help if there is a race-based court challenge to the new lines;

Putting Buckhead in the 6th District would make Price the congressman who represents the governor, who has an address on West Paces Ferry Road. And Price supported Karen Handel in the 2010 GOP primary.

But most importantly, by allowing Buckhead to remain in the hands of a Democrat, every Republican member of Congress in the state will consider Georgia's largest cache of wealthy voters to be fair game for campaign cash. Buckhead, in essence, would remain an open city for fund-raising.

What? You thought these lines were about you?