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Georgia Remap Ahead?

GOP Members Have Proposal

Republican leaders in the Georgia state Legislature are set to meet this week to decide whether they will take up the politically explosive task of redrawing Congressional district boundaries later this year.

Democrats were quick to warn that the GOP could be opening a Pandora’s box, and hinted that they could retaliate in kind in states where they control the Legislature.

The seven Republican members of the Georgia delegation have signed off on the redistricting plan and a new map has already been crafted, GOP sources confirmed Friday.

Sources also acknowledged that Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) is now on board with the proposal, a departure from the earlier perception that he was opposed to altering the lines crafted by Democrats in 2001. Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, is facing re-election next year.

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), have been kept abreast of the potential changes in Georgia’s map. But the process has largely been spearheaded by Peach State Republicans, led by Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Nathan Deal, the dean of the delegation.

“Hopefully the leaders in Georgia, because it’s a legislative decision, will make that decision to try to put Georgia back together,” Westmoreland said in an interview Friday. “Put counties and cities back together. Put county seats with their counties and hopefully make it just more of a conventional looking map than what we’ve got now.”

Westmoreland, a former state House Minority Leader elected to Congress in 2004, framed the effort as the fulfillment of a campaign pledge state Republicans made in 2002, the watershed electoral year that netted the GOP the governorship as well as control of the state Senate.

“They understand, I think, the people of Georgia expect this from us,” he added.

Republicans took full control of the state Legislature in last year’s elections, after new Legislative maps drawn by courts in February 2004 paved the way for the GOP to pick up 22 seats in the state House.

Westmoreland’s comments about reuniting communities are a foreshadowing of what will be Republicans’ primary selling point to voters, if they decide to move forward with a new map. Taking center stage in the redistricting debate will be the jagged lines of the current Congressional map, engineered by then-Gov. Roy Barnes (D) in 2001 with the expressed purpose of party gains.

“If this is going to be a successful effort it’s going to be because they’re going to put these counties back together,” noted one Republican strategist.

Still, there is little doubt that a redraw of lines will also produce political gains for the GOP, an outcome that Westmoreland acknowledges.

“Georgia went overwhelming for George Bush,” he said. “It has elected two Republican U.S. Senators. And if we get fair maps on the Congressional side it would just stand to reason that we may pick up seats.”

He added: “A byproduct of straightening the lines may be to pick up a seat. I don’t know.”

Under the newly proposed Congressional map, Democratic Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow will be put at the most risk.

Marshall’s middle-Georgia 3rd district would be tilted even more toward Republicans, taking in portions of Westmoreland’s heavily GOP 8th district.

Westmoreland’s predecessor, former Rep. Mac Collins (R), is interested in running again and his home would lie in the new 3rd district under the proposed GOP plan. Collins placed third in last year’s GOP Senate primary.

After a narrow victory in 2002, Marshall won re-election in his swing district by a healthy margin last year. He has held out the possibility that he could run for lieutenant governor in 2006, a decision that could be expedited by a newly reconfigured district.

“I would expect that Jim Marshall would continue to serve his constituents in an elected capacity,” Marshall spokesman Doug Moore said. “We’re going to keep our options open.”

Meanwhile, Barrow’s Athens home would be drawn into Rep. Charlie Norwood’s (R) 9th district under the new lines. The reconfigured 12th district would, however, still include the Screven County home of former Rep. Max Burns (R), whom Barrow defeated in 2004. Burns is expected to look at running again in the new 12th if the lines are changed.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) would also see the borders of his awkwardly drawn 11th district changed dramatically under the new plan. Gingrey won re-election last year with a less-than-overwhelming 57 percent of the vote despite spending almost $2 million against an underfunded opponent. Under the new plan his marginal district would become much more favorable for Republicans.

Elsewhere, the majority-minority districts of Reps. John Lewis, Cynthia McKinney and David Scott would not be dramatically altered demographically, according to Republicans familiar with the proposed map. They say Scott’s ambling 13th district would be given more concise lines, but it remains to be seen how much the district’s 41 percent black population might be diluted.

Rep. Sanford Bishop’s (D) southwestern 2nd district, which slightly swings toward the GOP, would also not be altered significantly.

Georgia is a Voting Rights Act state, and therefore any new lines would have to be approved by the Justice Department.

In an interview Friday, Lewis noted this year is the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and predicted that legal action would be all but assured if Georgia Republicans move forward, not only on the part of Democrats, but from good government groups as well.

“It would be very troublesome for many of us if anything is done to dilute the power and influence of the African-American vote in the state,” Lewis said. “I think it would be a bitter pill for many of us to swallow.”

Lewis said Republicans have yet to reach across the aisle to share their plans with Democrats, and he expressed doubt that any plan could move forward without strong bipartisan support in the state and on Capitol Hill.

He also warned that the redistricting move could eventually backfire on the GOP.

“I think that by re-redistricting at this point in Georgia, I think they’re playing with fire,” Lewis said.

Democrats have threatened that if Republicans change the Congressional map in Georgia they will seek to redraw lines in states they dominate, such as Illinois and New Mexico.

Lewis also likened the situation in his state to the mid-decade redistricting that Texas Republicans orchestrated last cycle, acknowledging that any new action on Georgia’s lines will inevitably be compared to the situation in the Lone Star State.

But in the end, one Democrat noted, just as in Texas — where new lines netted Republicans a total of five seats — the voters will be the ultimate judge.

“[Republicans are] going to do what they’re going to do and if they want to put their partisanship ahead of everything else then they can do that and the voters can sort it out,” said one Democratic aide.

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