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The Macon Telegraph

 

Court unveils voting maps
By Andy Peters
March 17, 2004

New maps for the state House and Senate released Monday left many lawmakers at the Capitol scratching their heads about how this fall's elections will play out.

The maps, drawn by a court-appointed redistricting expert called a "special master," left open the possibility of the end of Democratic rule in the House, as well as the possible defeat of members of Senate Republican leadership.

Also Monday, the House Reapportionment Committee finally released and approved its own map for House districts. The Senate Reapportionment Committee approved its own Senate map weeks ago.

There is still some possibility the courts might let lawmakers draw maps, but that's unlikely because the state is working on such a tight time frame.

Candidates must qualify between April 26 and April 30 for the July 20 election, leaving little time for the Department of Justice to "pre-clear" a new redistricting plan drawn by the Legislature, as it is required to do under the Voting Rights Act.

The end result for all involved: A great big unknown.

Rep. Robert Ray, D-Fort Valley, who lives on the border of Crawford and Peach counties, said his district would be expanded to seven counties from four if the special master's map is adopted. It also would remove the city of Fort Valley from his district, even though his home has a Fort Valley mailing address.

"It's hard for a lawmaker to represent seven counties," Ray said. "I don't think (the special master) did any better than the people here."

The House Democratic map released Monday would give Ray portions of five counties.

Numerous incumbents across the state find themselves sharing their district with another incumbent, leaving some wondering if their political careers were over. Three members of the House Democratic leadership team from Columbus - Tom Buck, Calvin Smyre and Carolyn Hugley - were all placed in the same district.

But open seats also were created with the special master's two maps, leaving open the possibility of House members switching to a Senate race, or vice-versa.

One Middle Georgia lawmaker does not think the special master's maps will be adopted.

"Certainly they have not helped our district much," said Rep. Curtis Jenkins, D-Forsyth. "(The map) still has a lot of split counties and division of communities of interest."

Jenkins said he plans to seek re-election regardless of which map is adopted.

Another Middle Georgia lawmaker believes the special master's map is likely to be used this fall.

The House Democrats' map would require approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, whereas the special master's map would not.

"You can't force the Justice Department to act any quicker than they want to act," said Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Warner Robins. "The (special master's) map is already cleared."

Democrats now control the House by a 108-71 majority, with one independent who usually votes with Republicans. But the special master's map only gives House Democrats 88 "safe" seats. In the House, 92 is needed for a majority.

"I think there's definitely going to be a shift of power," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Newnan, told the Associated Press.

But House Speaker Pro Tem DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said the calculation of 88 "safe" seats fails to take into account incumbent Democrats who regularly win election from districts considered to lean Republican.

The special master's Senate map probably would allow Republicans to retain control of that chamber.

On the Senate side, the special master's map creates three open districts in Middle Georgia, and pairs one group of incumbents in the same district.

Last month, a three-judge federal panel ruled that the House and Senate districts designed by a Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2001 and used in the 2002 elections packed too many people in some districts and too few in others, violating the one person, one vote principal.

State lawmakers were given until March 1 to draw new maps or forfeit the map-drawing to the court.

The Senate acted quickly to pass a new map but the deadline was missed because the Democrat-led House stalled action on the Senate plan and did not push its own bill out of committee until Monday afternoon, just an hour or so before the court maps were released.

Middle Georgia districts

For Middle Georgia, several open seats were created in both the House and Senate maps. Some incumbents also were paired.

O'Neal was placed in the same district as Rep. Larry Walker, D-Perry, who is retiring. The result is an open House district in northeastern Houston County, encompassing Robins Air Force Base.

One Republican, Stewart Bloodworth of Perry, already has announced plans to seek Walker's seat in the wake of Walker's retirement. That could pit Bloodworth against O'Neal in a primary election.

The special master's House map pairs no other incumbents and creates no other open seats. It does make some changes to the size and shape of House districts.

Rep. Ken Birdsong, D-Gray, said he likes the special master's map because it puts Wilkinson County in his district.

"Wilkinson has always been home to me," said Birdsong, who has a home in Jones County and a farm and home in northern Twiggs County. His farm has a mailing address of Gordon, which is located in Wilkinson County.

In Middle Georgia, the Senate districts with no incumbents are the 16th District, which includes parts of Monroe, Lamar, Pike, Spalding and Fayette counties; the 18th district, which takes in parts of western and southern Bibb, as well as Crawford, Jones and Monroe counties; and the 23rd district, which spans from northern Wilkinson County east all the way to the South Carolina line in Augusta.

The 23rd District was made an open seat by placing incumbent Republican Sens. Don Cheeks and Randy Hall of Augusta in the same district.

Two veteran Senate members, Democrat Hugh Gillis of Soperton and Republican Jack Hill of Reidsville, also were placed in the same district. Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, saw his district change little under the special master's map. His new district would take in more of Wilkinson County, but drop some parts of western Bibb.

Under the special master's map, the district of Sen. Faye Smith, D-Milledgeville, would include nine whole counties, including Baldwin, Putnam and Jasper, as well as northern Jones County. Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, would not be placed in the same district as Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, as had been the case under some previous maps. Tolleson's district would drop Bibb, Crawford, Jones, Monroe and Upson counties, and pick up Dodge, Johnson, Laurens, Telfair and Wilcox counties.

 


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