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A New Look in Georgia

GOP Ponders Altering Congressional Map

With Republicans now firmly in control of the Georgia state Legislature — completing a historic two-cycle transformation of the state’s political landscape — speculation is swirling about whether the party in power will look to redraw the state’s Congressional boundaries.

Peach State Republicans are still in the process of organizing and assessing the ramifications of their newfound dominance, and it is not immediately clear how much priority will be given to altering federal lines. But GOP officials and insiders agree there is more than a distinct possibility that state lawmakers could revisit the issue in next year’s session.

“I don’t know that this will be at the top of the list,” said Rep.-elect Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who stepped down from his post as state House Minority Leader to run for Congress last year. “But I think that the people of Georgia are ready to have their counties and their cities put back together.”

The jagged lines of the current Congressional map — drawn by state Democrats in 2001 with the expressed purpose of party gains — is expected to take center stage in the GOP’s argument to redraw boundaries.

“What the previous administration did was to pack Republican districts and pack Democrat districts and work as much as they could to decrease the representation for Republicans in Congress,” said Rep.-elect Tom Price (R-Ga.), a former state Senate Majority Leader and chairman of the Senate’s redistricting committee. “So I think there will be a desire to revisit that. Now, when that occurs and what shape that will take, I don’t know.”

Westmoreland, elected Nov. 2 in the overwhelmingly Republican 8th district with 76 percent of the vote, noted that his district spans 18 counties but he represents only three in their entirety. Several counties in the state have three or even four different Congressmen representing parts.

Westmoreland said he understands he would likely have to give up some of his Republican territory in return for more concise district lines.

“I’m sure that will cause me to have tougher opposition next time,” Westmoreland said. “Our Founding Fathers never expected us [legislators] to be picking our Representatives. They expected the people to choose their Representatives. I’m not so sure that’s been the case.”

While it remains unclear just how hard Georgia Republicans will push for a new map, Democrats warn that the move could open up a Pandora’s box by clearing the way for re-redistricting efforts in other states — especially those where Democrats have won legislative majorities or governorships since the last round of remapping.

In February 2004, judges redrew state House and Senate lines in Georgia after a court ruled the boundaries drawn in 2001 by Democrats were unconstitutional. The new maps helped pave the way for the state GOP’s landslide victories in the Nov. 2 elections, when the party picked up 22 seats in the state House and won control for the first time in history.

In 2002, Republicans gained the governorship and control of the state Senate, the first time the party has held either since Reconstruction. The GOP then made the redrawing of state legislative lines their top priority.

In the court case that ultimately produced the new legislative lines the judges ruled the population deviation in the state maps violated the one person, one vote principle and therefore they were unconstitutional. The deviation in the Congressional map is much smaller

But this cycle’s remapping success in the state, combined with the GOP gains, has further fueled talk about revisiting the Congressional lines.

“I don’t think it’s unlikely,” said Dan McClagan, spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue (R). “I really don’t. The maps that were drawn by the Democrats were obviously heavily gerrymandered to the point where they attracted judicial notice, and the Congressional maps are in some instances no better than the ones for the state House and Senate.”

If they decide to undertake the effort, state lawmakers are likely to focus heavily on altering the boundaries of the 3rd, 11th, 12th and 13th districts — all of which were drawn to produce Democratic gains.

The state picked up two additional seats during the most recent round of reapportionment and when the then-Democratic-controlled state Legislature — influenced heavily by then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D) — redrew lines in 2001 they did so with a 7-6 Democratic majority delegation in mind.

That plan fell far short as a GOP tidal wave swept the state in November 2002, leaving Congressional Democrats with a 5-8 disadvantage. Prior to the 2002 elections, the delegation consisted of eight Republicans and three Democrats. In the 109th Congress, Georgia will have seven Republicans and six Democrats in the House.

“The principles of redistricting are not partisanship. The principles are communities of interest, continuity and compactness,” Price said. “And I think the 3rd, 11th, 12th and 13th all violate those with great regularity. I think there can be a map that respects those boundaries and respects those principles and looks like adults drew it as opposed to kids. I think that’s where the Legislature would go.”

While Republicans say publicly that more uniform districts is their No. 1 goal, there is little doubt that a redraw of lines would benefit their party.

Likely one of their top priorities would be to shore up Rep. Phil Gingrey’s (R) marginal 11th district, which appears to be trending more Democratic. Gingrey faced a lackluster Democratic challenger this year but was re-elected to a second term with just 57 percent of the vote, despite spending almost $2 million on the race.

“Under any lines that are not gerrymandered, Phil has a rock-solid Republican district,” said Gingrey spokesman Brian Robinson.

The awkwardly drawn district takes in all or part of 17 counties and includes everything from Atlanta suburbs to rural northwestern border counties to majority-black precincts in Columbus.

“There’s no member of the delegation who would benefit from redistricting more than Phil Gingrey would,” Robinson said. “He loves his current district, but it’s hard to travel and it’s nearly impossible to reach your constituents effectively because of the split counties.”

Lawmakers are also likely to alter the makeup of the Democratic-leaning 12th district if they choose to redraw lines. It is considered highly possible that the reconfigured district would not include Athens, the home of Rep.-elect John Barrow (D), who defeated Rep. Max Burns (R). Instead, Barrow would be drawn into the 9th district with Rep. Charlie Norwood (R), although he could still opt to run for re-election in the 12th.

Under that same idea the 12th district, which currently stretches from Athens to Augusta to Savannah, would be extended westward to take in portions of the current 3rd district.

The 3rd, a swing seat held by Rep. Jim Marshall (D), could then be reconfigured to take in more portions of the old middle Georgia 8th district held by then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R) until 2002. The district’s black population would likely be diluted to make the seat more competitive. Marshall won re-election with 63 percent of the vote this year, despite being a GOP target.

Finally, Republicans point to Rep. David Scott’s (D) 13th district as the most abnormally configured product of the Democrats’ political gerrymandering. The district, which was created before the 2002 election, is made up of a series of fingers that jet out from west, south and east of metro Atlanta. One idea would be to consolidate the district on Atlanta’s western side, taking in Democratic portions of Gingrey’s current district.

While that move would dilute the black population some, Republicans appear unlikely to leave Scott vulnerable.

Party leaders know that altering the 13th district’s demographics drastically could produce big headaches because Georgia is a Voting Rights Act state and therefore any new lines will have to be approved by the Justice Department. The current 13th district has a 41 percent black population and is 42 percent white. Scott is black.

Any new action on redistricting in Georgia would inevitably be compared to what occurred in Texas a year ago.

State lawmakers redrew Congressional lines after the GOP won control of the Legislature in 2002. The map had originally been drawn by a three-judge panel.

After this cycle’s re-redistricting in Texas, Republicans gained six seats in the Congressional delegation. Legal action is still ongoing in the case, after it was remanded back to a three-judge panel by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But in Georgia, Democrats argue it would be unprecedented for the GOP to redraw lines that were penned by the state Legislature to begin with.

“We believe the Constitution prohibits states from redrawing Congressional boundaries, that have been deemed Constitutional, in the middle of the decade,” said Jerry Hebert, legal counsel for Congressional Democrats in the Texas redistricting case, because doing so would be “for the sole purpose of partisan maximization.”