State lawmakers carve out their own districts

By Allison Stevens
Published January 23rd 2002 in  The Hill
This article is the second in a two-part series on state legislators who use their influence to draw congressional districts suited to their own campaigns for Congress. The first part focused on Republican candidates; the second on Democrats.

Not many congressional hopefuls are as fortunate as Charles Walker Jr., a 33-year-old political novice whose father is one of Georgia's most powerful Democrats.

Walker is running for the state's newly drawn 12th District open seat - a strangely configured long, thin line that stretches for hundreds of miles in order to incorporate such distant Democratic strongholds as Athens, Augusta and Savannah.

Walker's campaign will no doubt receive a boost from his father, Charles Walker Sr., the majority leader in the state Senate and one of the most powerful black politicians in the country. Indeed, Walker Jr. has already reaped the benefits of his father's influence, according to Georgia political analyst Bill Shipp.

As majority leader, Shipp said, the senior Walker weighed in on his peers in the state Senate to help create a congressional district for a candidate to carry on his legacy. The chosen one, it turns out, is his son.

"They looked at the black census tracks," Shipp said. "They looked at the last election and they saw where [Vice President Al] Gore ran very well. In other words, they formed a black districtî that was ìdesigned for a [black Democrat] of his choosing."

The result? A convoluted district that separates communities of interest, but one where the younger Walker is already the clear frontrunner in a race that is expected to draw about a dozen candidates.

"It's a serious geographical problem," Shipp said, "but it's no problem for Walker as a candidate. He'll win the Democratic nod and I don't see how a Republican has any hope in the general election."

Walker, however, denied the allegation that his father weighed in on the redistricting process to help him secure a House seat.

ìItís a serious myth that my father created the district for me,î Walker said in an interview. ìMy father is considered one of the most powerful members of the state Legislature and people automatically assume that he knew that I was going to run and that he would do what he could to make sure that he would help his son. That did not happen in the least bit.î

He also denied that Georgia Democrats gerrymandered the district to help elect him as the stateís next African-American congressman, and instead charged state Rep. Ben Allen (D) with attempting to draw the district to further his own interests.

Allen used his seniority in the state Legislature to create a district that wholly incorporates his own state Assembly district in preparation for his congressional bid, Walker said.

ìI donít know Bill Shipp, but I will say that he certainly knows that Ben Allen drew the map to [advance] his personal agenda.î

There are three black representatives in the current 11-member Georgia delegation. In the 2000 elections, about a quarter of the Georgia voters were black.

If Walker wins, he wonít be the first beneficiary of a state lawmaker who has used his or her clout to design a custom-made congressional district. Nor will he be the last.

Nonetheless, he is one of a relatively small number of state legislators who are pulling strings behind state legislative doors this year to advance their own political agendas.

In 1992, seven state lawmakers in the Georgia Legislature won seven of the stateís then 11 House seats, a phenomenon that played out in states across the country, according to data compiled by the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Indeed, 10 years ago, a whopping 40 state legislators ó including a record number of African-Americans ó won House seats, the data showed. The class of state lawmakers comprised almost one-half of the 109-member freshman class that year.

This year, however, state legislators are expected to win a maximum of two of Georgia's expanded 13-seat delegation. Only in a smattering of states, such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Oklahoma, do similar opportunities arise.

A number of factors have contributed to the relatively small number of ambitious state lawmakers running for office, a phenomenon that works to the disadvantage of minority and woman candidates seeking entry into Capitol Hill.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said the dominant trend this year is for state legislatures to shore up incumbents rather than create new opportunities for rising stars in state and local politics.

Fewer incumbents have retired, he added, and there are fewer states that are controlled entirely by one party, where state legislators have the best opportunities to draw districts for themselves. In addition, several states have employed nonpartisan commissions to avoid partisan gerrymandering and costly legal battles.

ìEverything is so finely tuned with so few seats needed to change control that itís much more difficult to have oneís personal ambitions be weighed more highly than the effect on oneís party,î Richie said.

Thatís not to say that all state lawmakers have given up on their congressional dreams and Capitol Hill wishes.

In North Carolina, Brad Miller, a Democratic state lawmaker who chairs the redistricting committee in the state Senate says heís just about ready to formally kick off his campaign for the state's new 13th District in the central and northern part of the state.

Miller agreed to chair the committee last year even though he knew it would be "awkward" because he planned to run for Congress. But he said Senate President Pro Tem Mark Basnight persuaded him to take the position anyway.

Miller insists that the new district was not drawn specifically to help elect him and notes that the new maps were drawn up by the House redistricting committee - not the Senate committee.

Still, he considers himself the strong frontrunner in the new district because he knows the district and its constituents better than other potential candidate.

Miller currently represents Wake County, which comprises about half of the Democratic-leaning district. The fairly compact and contiguous district has a 54-29 percent edge in Democratic registration, but Republicans still say they have a good chance to win the seat.

Several local newspapers wrote strongly worded editorials condemning his role in the process. But Miller said he doesn't think his work on the redistricting committee will resonate in his campaign.

"Redistricting is a process in which a lot of people are acting in their own self interest," he said. "I certainly took my interests into account, but I was Mother Teresa compared to some."

California Democrats Sally Havice and Dennis Cordoza are also running for Congress, as is Tennessee Democrat Lincoln Davis. None hold leadership positions or sit on their state redistricting committees. Still, all voted on maps that made them the clear favorites in these newly drawn districts that house their hometowns.

In Oklahoma, state Senate Majority Leader Billy Mickle (D) has no official role in the redistricting process. But he has nonetheless spent time drawing up maps in preparation for his congressional bid, according to a Republican official who declined to be identified.

"He showed me what he was working on," the official said. "He has, on a regular basis over the last few months, spent several hours a week working on new congressional lines."

In Oklahoma's state House, Rep. Lloyd Benson, the Speaker emeritus and chairman of the redistricting committee, is also said to be mulling a congressional bid for one of Oklahoma's five seats, possibly challenging Rep. J.C. Watts (R). But Mickle is a more likely candidate than Benson, according to Brent Wilcox, spokesman for the Oklahoma Democratic Party.

Mickle has already formed an exploratory committee for the seat currently held by retiring Rep. Wes Watkins (R), which leans Democratic and is expected to be shored up after the Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, complete the new districting maps. Gov. Tom Keating (R) has said he will veto any plan that harms incumbents, a threat that will most likely cause the maps to be finally drawn in court.

Still, in all likelihood, Mickle's state Senate district would also be wholly contained within a new congressional district, Wilcox said. He added that Mickleís political clout and a tailor-made district would make the well-regarded state legislator the favorite in what is already becoming a crowded field.

"I think he'll have a great deal of influence [on the process]," added Oklahoma Republican strategist Tom Cole. "If the district exists, he'll be regarded very seriously, probably, as the favorite for the Democratic seat."