white base." August 16, 2001
Rueful Republicans have named the theme of the Legislature's drawing of new political boundaries "Save the white Democrat."
In a way, Democrats admit, the GOP is right.
The House and Senate districts of some black Democrats have been expanded to include more white voters. Black voters have been strategically sown in the districts of white Democrats. The aim of this blending of voters is to keep Democrats in control of the Capitol."It's the reapportionment to save the progressive alliance between African-American Georgians and white Georgians within the Democratic Party," said Robert Brown (D-Macon), vice chairman of the Senate reapportionment committee, who is black.
If it stands up to legal challenges, the redistricting will affect the way many lawmakers -- black and white -- will campaign for their jobs in 2002. It could also change how citizens, businesses and local governments relate to the Gold Dome.
The theme is playing out in many metro Atlanta districts:
A new congressional map has yet to be
drawn, but one thing is certain: the new Fifth District of U.S. Rep. John
Lewis will represent more white neighborhoods than the old one. "Even John
is saying the world has changed," said John Kirincich, executive director
of the state Democratic party.
Spurred by Gov. Roy Barnes, much of the
backroom conversation at the Capitol this month has been aimed at black
state legislators, to convince them that their sacrifice was necessary to
preserve Democratic control, and that they made a strategic mistake 10
"We thought we were going in the right direction," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), during Wednesday's debate in the House. "We didn't."
With black voters concentrated in their own districts, Republicans made unprecedented gains in electing members to the Legislature and, as mandatory redistricting approached this summer, were on the verge of parity with Democrats in the state Senate.
The strategy of Barnes and other Democrats has been to persuade black lawmakers to accept lower percentages of black voters in their districts, then scattering those spare voters to other districts.
"Democrats have systematically engaged in racial gerrymandering," said state GOP chairman Ralph Reed, who is threatening a legal challenge.
In the Senate, 13 of 56 districts have black voting populations exceeding 50 percent. But a total of 25 districts have black voting populations of 30 percent or more -- which would nearly guarantee a Democratic victory, according to strategists.
In the House, 24 of the 145 new districts have black voting populations of 50 percent or more. But a total of 54 districts have black voting populations of 30 percent or more.
At times, it was a tough sell.
The Democratic party churned stats to show black lawmakers that a black voting population as low as 45 percent virtually guarantees re-election for a black incumbent. David Scott, the longest serving African-American in the Georgia Senate, was involved in many of the sessions.
"I always use the example of Frank Sinatra," he said. "He stayed on top from the 1930s to the 1990s because he kept on reinventing himself. He kept reaching out to other constituencies. He kept adjusting to the styles, but he kept his own base.
"My district has progressively gotten whiter," Scott said. "All of them aren't going to vote for you, but a large majority of them will. But you've got to represent them. You've got to go to those community meetings. You've got to go to their churches and synagogues. You've got to go to their weddings and funerals, and that takes some extension of comfort. But that's the key."
Democrats were assisted in their effort by the 1.7 million new residents who moved into Georgia between 1990 and 2000. Forty-two percent were whites, but 35 percent were blacks -- many of whom moved into the state's suburbs. That made it easier to extend Atlanta-based legislative districts.
As approved Wednesday, House District 49 is a multi-member district, whose three black Democratic incumbents hail from Atlanta, Red Oak and College Park. It extends from south Atlanta to the northern half of Fayette County, sweeping up most of Fayette's 10,000 black residents.
Even so, the House map was adjusted to boost District 49's black population, at the insistence of state Rep. Bob Holmes of Atlanta, one of the incumbents. Given Fayette's extraordinary growth, Holmes was worried that the district's 61 percent black voting population would eventually ebb.
Democratic strategists hope the new maps will address the party's primary weakness, its division between white and black factions.
White Democrats who are more dependent on black voters will respond accordingly, said Brown, the Macon lawmaker. But black legislators will be affected, too -- particularly in metro Atlanta. Often, Brown said, Atlanta legislators have been divorced from statewide policy issues because of their tightly drawn districts. The new map will change that, he said.
The House made it a clean sweep for the Democrats on Wednesday, approving new district lines that -- at least on paper -- will continue the party's control through this decade.
The vote ends the fighting over legislative redistricting for state lawmakers, coming less than a week after the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its own new political map last week. Though the House and the Senate must still go through the formality of approving each others' map, both chambers traditionally approve them without changes.
The House debate Wednesday, which went on for six hours before the 102-74 vote, was testy and, at times, nasty.
GOP members walked out in protest after casting their nearly unanimous votes against the plan, but they were not completely downcast. GOP leaders were confident that shifting demographics and voter outrage over multimember districts would give them control of the House within a few elections, possibly as soon as 2002.
"We will beat them with their own map," said House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland (R-Sharpsburg).
Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy was equally confident, dismissing GOP predictions that the multimember districts will be overturned for interfering with the voting strength of blacks or the one-person, one-vote principle.
Two Republicans -- Reps. Chuck Scheid of Woodstock and Terry Barnard of Glennville voted in favor of the Democrats' map while Democratic Reps. Paul Smith of Rome and Dorothy Pelote of Savannah voted against their party.
Once the bills are approved by the respective chambers and the governor signs them into law, the state still must get the changes approved according to the federal Voting Rights Act.
Meanwhile, congressional redistricting still awaits legislators. Gov. Roy Barnes has not announced when he will call a second remapping session, but legislators expect it will come soon, if not immediately, after they finish off legislative redistricting next week.
During Wednesday's debate, Republicans repeated their concerns throughout the day over the multimember districts -- the map puts 58 members in 24 supersized districts of two to four lawmakers -- and whether African-American voting strength would be reduced. For decades Georgia's House included multimember districts, in which more than one legislator serves a larger group of constituents.
Under the current plan, a multimember district will have two to four times the 45,480 people in a single-member district, depending on how many legislators represent them. There will be two districts that will be represented by four legislators.
"It's illegal," Westmoreland said, reminding his colleagues that multimember districts were adopted decades ago by "segregationists [who] wanted to keep blacks from holding office."
He insisted that the Republican view of Georgia would make black voters stronger. Republicans complained that the Democrats were sacrificing black voters' interests to stay in power.
"It's partisan all the way down to your toenails," said Rep. David Lucas (D-Macon), a member of the Legislative Black Caucus. "No doubt about it. Yes, it's a Democratic plan. It's about self-survival. You want control and I don't want you to have control."
Some African-American members recalled that they had joined forces with Republicans in the 1991 redistricting session, and the eventual result was Democratic losses. After the 1991 session there were 145 Democrats in the House, and today there are 105.
"I remember 10 years go when some of us went with you all, the Republican Party," Lucas said. "The same people who are talking about being our friends, who said they were our friends 10 years ago, stuck it to us."
House Democrats rolled out a redistricting plan Monday they say will help them maintain control at the state Capitol. At the same time, Republicans say the new map may end up giving the GOP what it needs to take over the state House.
After meeting in private for almost two weeks --- trying to balance the concerns of legislators with the desires of Gov. Roy Barnes --- Democratic leaders who control the House released their view of the chamber for the next 10 years.
The map, which passed a House subcommittee Monday, would have 34 members representing voters in 24 multimember districts. And it would eliminate some Republicans by lumping them into districts with each other or into districts that, according to voting data, usually choose Democrats.
House Speaker Tom Murphy (D-Bremen), one of the architects of the plan, would be one of the House members in a multimember district as his area was merged with that of Rep. Bill Cummings (D-Rockmart).
In addition, there are 14 other proposed multimember districts that would have two representatives each. Eight other multimember districts would each have three representatives in the House.
Only one district would have four seats in the House --- an area of Atlanta now represented by Democrats Nan Orrock, who is one of Barnes' floor leaders; Jim Martin, who will be leaving to become Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources; and Kathy Ashe, who changed parties this year after being elected as a Republican. The fourth seat is open.
Attempts to retain Democratic strength have been complicated in the special session because, during the 1990s, some of the state's population shifted from Middle Georgia and South Georgia, which historically has supported Democrats, to metro Atlanta and North Georgia, where Republican candidates fare well.
Consequently, at least eight House seats that, for now, represent South Georgia have shifted north of Macon. So Republicans are confident, even though they didn't draw the plan that will be presented to the House reapportionment committee today and to the full House on Wednesday.
"The way this map is drawn, we'd lose 25 seats. We're actually going to gain 17 (seats) we need to be a majority in 2002," said House Republican Leader Lynn Westmoreland of Sharpsburg.
Westmoreland said the Democrats' thesis was flawed because they drew lines based on voting patterns. The Republican leader said the GOP's analysis shows that Georgia voters are "candidate-driven" rather than geared to party affiliation. For example, the state went overwhelmingly for a Republican in the last presidential election but has a Democratic governor.
In addition, he said, voters will resent Barnes' role in this summer's redistricting and the Republicans will benefit.
"I disagree with that," responded Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), saying that Republicans are out of touch with reality.
After redistricting in 1991, the Democrats controlled 145 of the 180 seats in the House. Today, the Democrats have 105 in a chamber where it takes 91 votes to pass legislation. Murphy had said he wanted a plan that would be supported by at least 100 House members. One member, Rep. Billy McKinney (D-Atlanta) is ill and may not be able to vote.
"We don't have a lot of room for slippage. We've got to be able to pass something," said House Majority Leader Larry Walker (D-Perry). "And what we've got, we can pass."
Every redistricting map is a patchwork of ripple effects and unintended consequences. Whether intended or not, the map passed at week's end by a Democratic majority in the Senate could have a big effect on how things work at the county and municipal level during the next decade.
Of the hundreds of bills introduced in the General Assembly each year, a high percentage come under the category of local legislation. If the local chamber of commerce and the mayor want to set up a development authority, for example, they work it out with the senators and representatives of their county.
The plan becomes a bill and the entire Legislature votes on it, but that's usually just a formality. Convincing the county delegation --- which in some rural areas means just one senator and one House member --- is what matters.
By ignoring county lines in drawing the Senate map, Republicans charged last week, Democrats were complicating the lives of legislators and short-changing the counties.
Sen. Sonny Perdue of Bonaire pointed to districts such as the proposed 4th, in southeastern Georgia, which goes into nine counties with a total population of 431,799, and includes 40 other municipal governments, not including school boards.
Trying to meet all the local needs of a district that touches such a wide area, Perdue said, was akin to representing the constituents of a congressional-sized district, "without a congressional staffer to deal with them."
Perdue said the impact on local affairs may have been an unintended consequence of the Democrats "using people as caulking to get the districts they want."
Sen. Mike Crotts went a step further, charging Democrats had "infiltrated" a number of majority-Republican counties to get majorities on local delegations.
His home county of Henry is majority Republican and currently is represented only by him, Crotts noted, but under the new map he would be outvoted by two Democrats in the local Senate delegation.
Democrats answered the Republicans by noting that a larger county delegation can mean more clout in the Legislature.
"Sometimes you pick up a broader base of talent and influence than you had," said Sen. Steve Thompson of Powder Springs, Democratic floor leader for Gov. Roy Barnes. He compared the situations created by the new map with his experience serving for 10 years in a five-member House district in Cobb County.
"What that did for the public was that if you didn't get along with Steve Thompson, you could pick up the phone and call somebody else," he said.
That isn't the message he's been hearing from local officials, Perdue said.
"They tell me that the more legislators they have to go to, the more consensus they have to build, the more difficult they tell me that is," the Republican senator said.
Large local delegations are nothing new for metro Atlanta counties, but their meetings will be getting larger as well, due to the representation picked up by the rising population.
Whichever side is right in this debate, the new legislative map, like the new multi-county transportation and water authorities set up under Barnes, point to a future in which the affairs of Georgia's 159 counties become increasingly interrelated.
The ultimate unintended consequence could be a call for more manageable governmental units, but for now local officials and legislators are left to make sense of the ones they have.
On Friday, Bill Stephens began his ride on the pair of elephant ears sketched across North Georgia.
If he hurries, the Republican state senator can make the end-to-end trip in just under eight hours. But it will take 199 miles, a tank of gas, and a good map.
A compass and a ration of salt wouldn't hurt.
Friday's vote to redraw the political boundaries of the Senate membership hands Stephens and his 55 colleagues a set of new districts and voters. Republicans in particular suffer under the map, which was drawn by Democrats. Ten Republican senators were thrown into already-occupied districts.
Stephens, 44 years old and in his second term, was lucky. His District 51 merely doubled in size, in a highly creative manner. From a political point of view, it means the Canton lawmaker must raise twice as much money for re-election.
For voters, it means that a resident of Rabun County, hard against the South Carolina border, will have to look to a legislator who lives on the edge of metro Atlanta for day-to-day representation.
"What in the world are we going to do with a Republican?" asked Cynthia Brown, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce in Toccoa.
Stephens voted against the map, but he is confident he'll see eye to eye with his new constituents. "I grew up in the mountains. I understand intuitively the needs of these people," he said.
But 90 percent of politics is just showing up. For Stephens, that will be the hard part. Here's what it involves:
On your mark, get set
Let the journey start at the Big Chicken in Marietta at 11 a.m. To get to the new District 51, dodge the semis and road-weary commuters on I-75, heading north on I-575.
Bill Stephens' realm begins just past Exit 7, on the far side of Woodstock.
The redrawing of political lines every 10 years forces a kind of Rorschach test on the General Assembly. The shapes a lawmaker sees will depend on his point of view.
Eric Johnson's District 1 was stretched down the Georgia coast, with two legs poking inland. The Republican says it looks like a dead dog.
Stephens' new District 51 is a pair of flopping elephant ears, connected by a thread that could be the Georgia border itself. Stephens knows the western ear.
At 23 miles, 11:45 a.m.
Ken Mize and his wife own Cherokee Cleaners, not far off the town square in Canton, where Stephens has lived for four years. Mize knows the state senator and likes him. "I think he could win statewide, if he could get the right people behind him," the dry cleaner says.
But this is to be expected. If a politician can't win the man who puts starch in his shirts, he's not worth the name.
So it's back on the interstate, racing north. I-575 quickly blends into the Zell Miller Mountain Parkway. Pickens County, the marble capital of Georgia, flashes by. The four-lane is ruled by 4x4s decorated with rebel flags and Dale Earnhardt's No. 3.
At Ellijay, in Gilmer County, the green mountains begin to close in. Vacationers and their luxury trailers join the pickup trucks. Tourism, not commuting, is the major concern.
At 90 miles, 1:30 p.m.
Near the center of Fannin County sits Morganton, a small mountain town of 300 that has threatened to disappear for 50 years.
City Hall is a low, cinderblock building. The mayor's desk is right off the door. The front door opens. A man pokes his head in, looks at the visitor, then ducks out.
"That's our water commissioner. He's shy," Mayor Barbara Stephens said.
She is Bill Stephens' mama, a retired teacher of 30 years. Tall, slim, with wavy white hair, the mayor has passed on to her son the sharp features of her face.
Fannin County is familiar ground for Bill Stephens. He's the fifth generation, "as best as I can count from the cemetery visits," his mother says.
The mayor doesn't worry about the 39,000 new voters that lie beyond the edge of Fannin County. "These are mountain people. He'll relate well with them," she said.
At 120 miles, 3:30 p.m.
The strangest feature of the new District 51 is the thin strip of borderland in Union and Towns counties that connects the western ear with the eastern one. At one point, the land bridge is the width of two football fields.
Mary Sue Barnard lives at that narrowest point, or very close to it. The widow's small frame house is in Georgia, northwest of Young Harris. She parks her car in North Carolina.
Barnard looks at the new Senate map --- and the news that she personally may be holding an entire district together --- with a high degree of skepticism.
"That figures. They never did treat us like we were part of Georgia until Zell Miller came along," she said.
She has no idea who Bill Stephens is. Barnard votes, but doesn't consider herself politically active. She knows Zell Miller only because she and her husband used to square-dance with Miller and his wife.
That's not necessarily bad for Stephens, who was a senior aide to Miller while he was governor.
At 170 miles, 5:30 p.m.
The City Council of Clayton, the county seat of Rabun County, takes a break from a work session to cogitate over the new Senate map.
City Manager Henry Burrell and Mayor Marvin Jowers don't particularly like it. They both work with local legislators to tap state government for extra money, to keep local taxes low. Neither knows Bill Stephens.
Councilman Bob Edwards is a Democrat. He understands a strategy that squeezes Republicans. "I'm in favor of that," he said.
But the map foretells the domination of metro Atlanta, he pointed out. "We don't have a prayer of electing local people to that seat," he said. Anchored by Cherokee County, the population in the western ear stands at 76,000, roughly double that of the eastern ear. "We'll be left out," he said in a worried tone.
At 199 miles, 6:55 p.m.
From Clayton, the road runs downhill to Toccoa and farmland Georgia. Sundown is approaching, and the offices of the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce are closed.
But Cynthia Brown, the executive director, was at her desk Friday when the Senate confirmed the lines that, short of a court challenge, will stand for the next 10 years. She was stunned.
"This has been a Democratic stronghold for years," she said.
Stephens and the area's current Democratic state senator, Carol Jackson, will split the city of Toccoa and Stephens County (no relation to the senator from Canton). Which is fine by Brown, who has worked closely with Jackson for years.
Jackson helped Toccoa pull together a ceremony for a preview of HBO's "Band of Brothers" --- Toccoa was a World War II training ground for paratroopers. And Jackson has helped find funding for the re-creation of a Native American village.
So Stephens County will have a Republican lawmaker, but it will maintain its access to Democratic clout. "Here again, you dance with who shows up," Brown said.
Bill Stephens intends to show up. He'll make his own tour of the new district first, then start sending out letters. The new lines won't go into effect until 2003, but senators have to start pleasing the people within them almost immediately.
"In effect, I'm their senator now," he said.
Democrats narrowly pushed their redistricting plan
through the Georgia Senate Friday, but Republicans, unable to block it
during a four-hour debate, said they will sue to stop it.
Unable to affect the process and with nothing solid to shoot at, the Republicans spent the first week of the special redistricting session cooling their heels in frustration, watching Democrats file in and out of the governor's office. That changed bright and early Monday morning with the unveiling of the Democrats' proposed Senate map.
The Republicans still can do little to affect their fate. But the map gave them ample opportunity to fulminate.
Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons compared it to a Jackson Pollack painting.
"Conceived in the dark, by thugs and cowards," roared Minority Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah from the Senate well. Like an atom bomb dropped on the state, said Sen. Bart Ladd of DeKalb County. "The worst case of gerrymandering in U.S. history," declared Sen. Bill Stephens of Canton later in the day.
It would take a lot of research to back up that last claim, but this map did have enough irregularly shaped districts to set Capitol observers off on a day of comparisons with mythical beasts and otherworldly characters. Sen. Eric Johnson's new district, which meanders around to pick up every solidly Republican precinct in a big block of east Georgia counties, represents a coastal community of interest, Democrats said. Well, then, shot back the Republicans, what about Sen. Joey Brush's district --- which snakes from Brush's home outside Augusta almost to Macon, then back up toward Atlanta?
"I would say that's a tourism district," responded Majority Leader Charles Walker, tongue in cheek.
"That's what was left (after all the other districts were drawn), frankly," Sen. Robert Brown of Macon said afterward of Brush's district.
But like other districts drawn for GOP incumbents, it packs the maximum number of Republicans into shapes drawn with little regard for county or precinct lines, which Brown acknowledged were "not paramount" in the drawing of this map.
Republicans have so far had no success in creating a rift between white and black Democrats, but with this map in hand they redoubled their efforts.
The map was a token of "arrogant white Democratic power," Ladd charged.
"This time they have a few black conspirators along with them, but a lot of people are obviously uncomfortable with this map," Ladd said.
To pass the map, the Democrats will need the votes of at least 29 of their 32 senators. By one account, four African-American Democrats --- Vincent Fort, Donzella James and Horacena Tate of Atlanta and Regina Thomas of Savannah --- and two white Democrats --- Don Cheeks of Augusta and Daniel Lee of LaGrange --- still had reservations about voting for the plan.
But Gov. Roy Barnes, who spent a good part of last week talking to House Republicans about the merits of multi-member districts, was training his focus on the Senate Monday morning.
A Barnes ally acknowledged the redistricting strategy being pushed by the governor is "bold," but he and other Democrats said they were confident a map much like the one introduced Monday is on the way to passage.
Senate Reapportionment Committee Chairman Tim Golden of Valdosta said he expects the remap plan to be on the Senate floor by Wednesday, "no later than Thursday."
Expect more Republican thunder when it gets there.
Republicans complained louder Thursday about the governor's involvement in redrawing legislative districts.
And even before the echo of their words had faded, several House Democratic leaders were headed for the second floor of the state Capitol, where they met with Gov. Roy Barnes, who, unlike his predecessors, is heavily involved in crafting the boundaries for House and Senate seats. The General Assembly is adjourned until Monday.
"The governor had some areas he wanted us to look at in terms of Democratic strength across the state," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus). "We're not just talking about tomorrow; we're talking about 10 years."
Many Democratic House members, called to private meetings with the governor, have seen plans that put them into areas with voters unfamiliar to them or in supersized districts that would have more than one representative.
Republicans think Barnes shouldn't be involved at all, because it affects the Legislature.
"Every time I talk to somebody about a map, they tell me they are going to the second floor," House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland (R-Sharpsburg) said, referring to the location in the Capitol of the governor's office. "I thought this was a legislative map. I didn't think it was an executive (branch) map."
An aide to the governor avoided answering specific questions about Barnes' intentions, but released a generic statement about the process. "Redistricting shapes the future of this state," the statement said. "The governor has a great interest in making sure it is handled in a manner that is fair and that takes into consideration what is best for the entire state of Georgia."
Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist, noted that Barnes "has a lot more at stake" than, for example, former Govs. Zell Miller and Joe Frank Harris. Barnes is the first governor in 130 years to face the possibility of Republicans controlling at least one chamber of the General Assembly.
"Does Roy Barnes want to confront that?" Bullock said. "Absolutely not. I assume he's going to do all he can to ensure he's going to be working with a Democratic House and Senate."
The Democrats have produced no statewide maps for public review.
Multi-members districts are not new --- Georgia first adopted them in the mid-1960s.
For example, at one time Clayton and Fayette counties made up one district with five representatives. In South Georgia, six counties were part of a multi-member district with two House seats.
"In rural areas, you have a need to put together the strongest voice you can on a particular project, and it helps to have two voices in the House as opposed to one," said Rep. Roger Byrd (D-Hazlehurst), who was one of two lawmakers in a district before it was split into two in 1991. "It helps those sparsely populated areas."
Multi-member districts were abandoned during redistricting in 1991 because of complaints that they weakened minority voting strength. "It's like a loaded gun," warned Laughlin McDonald, a voting rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has great potential for mischief."
Yet Democrats are turning back to them now because they might protect the seats they have and also slow Republican gains.
The concept is even getting support from African-American legislators.
"If they are used to enhance Democratic opportunities and not to dilute minority voting strength, I would support them," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta).
Staff writers Kathey Pruitt and David Pendered
contributed to this article.
U.S. Rep. Bob Barr is something of a squatter nowadays.
He sold his four-bedroom Cobb County home in February. And he often sleeps on his office couch in Washington.
Barr's waiting for the Georgia General Assembly to redraw boundaries of U.S. congressional districts this month before he moves from his rented Vinings townhouse.
The outspoken Republican says he's been targeted by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. Politicians of either party aren't above drawing lines just shy of a political enemy's street to put him outside his own district.
"Since he already sleeps on his office couch when he is in Washington, and is now living in a temporary residence when he is home in Georgia, I can tell you, he is very much looking forward to the Democrats deciding where the new congressional district will be," his press secretary, Brian Walsh, said.
U.S. House members aren't required to live in the district they represent, but politically it's better to live within the district and claim unity with the people. Walsh would not disclose Barr's exact address in Vinings.
Congressional districts must be redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes, and Georgia will be adding two House seats to the 11 it already has. Barr's 7th Congressional District encompasses parts of Cobb, Douglas, Paulding and other counties, and he must run for re-election in November 2002.
"He's just waiting to see and I don't blame him," former state Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay said of Barr's limbo housing status.
"Why tip your hand to the Democrats where you're going to live? I don't care if you're renting, buying or squatting. Why tell them anything?"
Democrats, Barnes at odds over redistricting strategy
By Dick Pettys
August 2, 2001
Publicly, Democrats welcome Gov. Roy Barnesí intense, behind-the-scenes involvement in the Georgia Legislatureís special redistricting session. Privately, some say heís part of the problem.
Democratic leaders put the two-day-old session into a long weekend recess Thursday, apparently short of rallying enough votes behind any House or Senate redistricting plan.
Work toward redrawing lines continued, but far from public view in offices scattered around the Capitol, including Barnesí.
Legislators trooped in shifts to Barnesí office Wednesday for an earful ìon the historical trends of Georgia politics; of where weíre going to be in the next 10 or 20 years,î said Rep. Ray Holland, D-Ashburn. ìItís a very impressive approach.î
Translation, according to sources in the governorís office: lawmakers should put aside narrow self-interest and pass a plan that allows Democrats to gain seats overall, even if their own districts donít come out precisely the way they want them.
In the House, Barnes thinks such a plan may mean multimember districts for some areas of the state as a means to blunt Republican gains.
It may also mean some districts are a little less packed with Democratic voters than before, so adjacent districts can be made a little less Republican.
Not all Democrats are happy with the proposal, hence the unsettled atmosphere permeating the statehouse this week.
Some in both houses were saying privately they couldnít vote with the governor and thought he didnít have their best interests at heart. Democratic House leaders including House Speaker Tom Murphy of Bremen were devising their own plan separately from the governor.
Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said the problem is that Democrats havenít settled on a common strategy for drawing new districts.
ìThe governorís looking at numbers and the legislators are looking at, I guess, district personalities, so to speak,î he said. Nevertheless, Coleman predicted the dispute would be settled. ìThereís something, somewhere in between.î
Multimember districts are larger-than-normal districts in which two or more lawmakers run for numbered posts and are elected by all the districtís voters.
Democrats already have aired one such proposal for metro Atlanta, which illustrates how it would work in the case of Reps. Kathy Ashe and Jim Martin.
Ashe was elected as a Republican from a conservative district but switched parties this year. Martin is a Democrat from an adjacent district. Combining the two areas might allow Ashe to win re-election because the larger district would not be as conservative as her district alone.
Some Democrats fear that running in a geographically larger multimember district could increase their campaign costs. And some also prefer campaigning among voters they know.
ìWe certainly have senators that are not excited about their districts changing in any way,î Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor said.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said heís not surprised by the conflict among Democrats.
ìI suspect both the Democratic legislators and the governor want to get to the same place ... but they may see different ways of getting there,î he said.
ìThe legislators, I would suspect, are interested in doing that by protecting themselves individually. They want to still be there in the new majority. Very few of them would willingly walk the plank for the good of the party. Rule No. 1 is, you do whatís good for the party, but Rule No. 2 is, not if it endangers you,î he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are waiting to see if they can exploit the disagreement.
ìWhile the governor may be working on a ëmacroí Democratic plan, heís led them down some pretty blind trails the last two or three years,î Republican Sen. Sonny Perdue of Bonaire said. ì... I think theyíve got some real and legitimate concerns. I think heís going to get too cute.î