By ERRIN HAINES and SHANNON McCAFFREY
Hours after state Republican lawmakers unveiled their proposal for Georgia’s new political boundaries, Democrats continued to decry the plans as harmful to minority voters and incumbents, setting the stage for a future legal challenge.
The proposed maps would create 11 match-ups where incumbents would face off against each other, including the state Senate’s longest-serving member. In four districts, Black Democrats would be pitted against their White colleagues.
South Georgia would lose big under the plan as legislative seats disappear, reflecting the region’s dramatic population loss.
Legislative leaders released the maps on the General Assembly’s website on Friday. The special session, which will focus on redistricting but will also deal with other issues including transportation, begins Monday, Aug. 22. The first public hearings on the new districts are set for Tuesday.
It’s the first time Georgia Republicans are in control of redistricting from start to finish. They say the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voting interests.
”It’s been tough putting this plan together, but we’ve created a plan that does a great job of representing all Georgians and complying with all legal requirements,” said state Rep. Roger Lane, a Republican who heads the House redistricting panel.
Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said the maps clearly help Republicans, who already hold commanding majorities in both the House and the Senate.
”They will benefit and pick up some seats,” Swint said. ”They didn’t do the Democrats any favors.”
Democrats vow to oppose the GOP’s plans, which they claim unfairly target some of their members by setting up racially polarizing matchups, largely in metro Atlanta. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams warned this week that Republicans were trying to purge Georgia of White Democrats. She stood by her claim on Friday.
”When we begin a redistricting process in a fashion that isolates, polarizes and resegregates, we do not send a signal to the rest of the United States that we are a progressive state,” Abrams told reporters after the proposed maps were released. ”To say that my accusations were baseless was preposterous.”
The Senate map targets George Hooks of Americus, regarded as the dean of the Senate, who could face competition from fellow Democrat Sen. Freddie Powell Sims of Dawson. Hooks is White; Sims is Black.
Hooks, who spent 10 years in the House and has been in the Senate for 21 years, said change is the one constant in the redistricting process.
”My section of the state is up against a rock and a hard place,” Hooks said. ”We knew that going into it.”
In an e-mail to House Democrats, Abrams urged them to remain united in their opposition to the maps as proposed, and warned them of the political consequences of the usual politics of self-preservation.
”We have been a unified caucus,” Abrams said. ”There certainly are some folks I’m going to have to coax a little bit, but any individual member’s success at the expense of the Democratic caucus and millions of Georgians is not worth the sacrifice. It is in the Democratic nature to say we stick together, lest we all fall.”
Redistricting is required every decade to adjust to population changes as reflected in new census data. Some legislators were getting their first look at the maps last Friday.
Georgia, now the country’s ninth largest state, gained more than 1 million residents and picks up a congressional seat this year.
The new U.S. House seat is likely to be created in north Georgia in response to the region’s population boom. Also bolstering the case for gains in North Georgia: The region is home to the state’s three top Republicans, Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.
The proposal for the state House would eliminate four GOP seats in south Georgia, pitting eight Republicans against each other. Among those facing off are a pair of lawmakers who this year switched to the GOP.
State Rep. Gerald Greene, of Cuthbert, was one of those party-swappers who will now have to fight for his political survival.
”It’s just one of these things,” said Greene, adding he did not regret switching to the GOP.
Lawmakers have budgeted $3.9 million for redistricting session, predicting it will take legislators four weeks to adopt the maps.
Because of past voting discrimination, Georgia, like other southern states, must submit its maps to the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts to ensure Voting Rights Act compliance.
According to John Eaves, chair of the Fulton County Commission, “The maps currently being considered by the state legislature do not show positive outcomes for anyone in Fulton County. As a county, if this redistricting passes, many of the legislative members are likely to reside outside of Fulton County boundaries. In the next 10 years when the state gets to the negotiations table on important matters, I do not want our senators and representatives living outside of Fulton County.”