Georgia’s redrawn district lines help both political parties

Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, GA) - August 29, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Slicing and dicing congressional districts in the Peach State could have national implications.

That’s because Democrats and Republicans are in a horse race across the country to redraw congressional districts considered more politically favorable in advance of the 2012 elections. Redrawn maps elsewhere in the South such as North Carolina and South Carolina will likely help the GOP solidify its hold on seats.

In Georgia that meant that in ceding much of Bibb County to the 2nd Congressional District, the Republican controlled state legislature created a much safer district politically for Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany. Last year, Bishop narrowly eked out a win during the 2010 elections and was able to avoid the fate of Bibb County’s previous congressman -- former Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon -- an 8th Congressional District lawmaker who perennially faced challenges in his Republican-heavy district.

Ultimately, Marshall and nearly half of his 50 fellow moderate to conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives lost their bids to keep their seats during the 2010 elections. The Blue Dogs’ broad losses in largely rural and conservative-leaning Southern districts broadened an ideological divide that has stymied compromise in the wake of the Republican sweep of House seats.

Giving Bishop half of Bibb County also had a greater purpose: helping shore up the man who won Marshall’s seat last year, tea party-backed freshman Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ashburn.

“Republicans had an interest in protecting Austin Scott,” said David Wasserman, House race analyst at the Cook Political Report in Washington D.C. “It was a fair trade.

“Republicans could also justify this map to black voters.”

The new proposed Georgia map pulls large segments of African-Americans into majority-black districts. This, too, is another strategy Republicans are using across the South, Wasserman said.

“Democrats are increasingly the party of minorities across the South. The strategy of Republicans largely across the South is to pack minority and Democratic voters into heavily minority districts so as to leave Democrats without opportunities in the vast majority of seats,” Wasserman said.

In Scott’s case, the 8th Congressional District reaches through Houston, Twiggs, Wilkinson, Jones and Monroe counties. Under the draft proposal, he loses locations north of there, but he picks up several counties near the Florida border. About 30 percent of his voting-age constituency is black.

Historically and statistically, that means a Republican district.

Meanwhile, nearly 51 percent of the redrawn 2nd Congressional District’s voting age population is black.

Baldwin County is drawn out of incumbent Democrat Rep. John Barrow’s district.

The last white Democratic representative from the Deep South is drawn into a radically changed district that does not include his home base in Savannah.

Instead, Baldwin would make one edge of the 10th Congressional District of state Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens.

“The last remaining white Democrat in Georgia is John Barrow and it is likely he may be without a job come 2013,” Wasserman said.

A huge upsurge in Hispanic population growth helped net Georgia the extra congressional seat, but many of them are not eligible to vote and feel their voices were not heard in the redistricting process. This rankles Hispanic voting rights advocates.

“Because of the anti-Latino environment that is clear with some elected officials, we do not believe the state has met the burden to prove they have not redrawn Georgia’s legislative proposals in a non-discriminatory manner with respect to the Latino community,” Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization focused on Georgia’s growing Latino population, wrote in a recent letter to the state committee on reapportionment.

In Georgia, the Hispanic population grew by 96 percent over the past decade, according to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Only 23 percent of Georgia’s Hispanic population is eligible to vote, compared with 42 percent nationwide, figures that reflect the state’s high numbers of young Hispanics and new immigrants.

As a result, Wasserman said, Georgia’s new congressional district “is one of the most heavily Republican in the state.”

-- Maggie Lee in Macon contributed to this report.