Home rule is about to get a stress test in the state Capitol.
When some 235 lawmakers gather next week to begin the 2019 session of the Legislature, they will stand on ground that has shifted significantly since their predecessors adjourned last spring.
In 2018, Republican votes controlled two of Georgia’s three most populous counties. But in November, an electoral backlash to President Donald Trump drove both Gwinnett and Cobb counties into the Democratic camp.
Georgia’s 10 most crowded counties contain roughly half the state’s 10 million residents. Only two of those counties – Cherokee (No. 7) and Forsyth (No. 9) remain solidly Republican.
Yet, obviously, the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion remain under GOP control — which means a city-mouse vs. country-mouse dynamic is likely to be a dominant theme of the winter session.
Later this week, Gov.-elect Brian Kemp will set off on a victory tour that explicitly omits any stops in metro Atlanta. And there’s the Senate effort, led by Rep. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, to put the city of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under state supervision.
But the real test for home rule in Georgia may be the latitude allowed state lawmakers in metro Atlanta to shape the rules of governance for the communities they represent.
Twenty-five men and women represent Gwinnett County, or slices of it, in the Legislature. Last year, Republicans were in command of both the House and Senate delegations.
This year, Democrats will be in control of Gwinnett’s local legislation. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, a 16-year veteran of the Legislature, will chair the House delegation. Leadership of Gwinnett’s seven-member Senate delegation has yet to be determined, but the two leading candidates, both newcomers, speak to the county’s diversity.
One is Sheikh Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant. He will be the first Muslim member of the Legislature – although he says he’ll put his hand on a Bible in a formal swearing-in ceremony “out of respect for tradition.”
The other is Zahra Karinshak, a child of immigrants who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and is now a lawyer.
There have been some recent, prominent exceptions, but by tradition, the Legislature has given deference to local bills that receive majority support from a county’s lawmaking delegation. Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, is interested in a bill to expand the size of both the Gwinnett County Commission and the local school board.
“What we’ve tried to do is keep it local,” McClain said – though he acknowledged that a GOP-controlled House would still have the power to bottle his legislation up, if it so chose.
The picture is less cut-and-dry in Cobb County. Democrats now control that county’s House delegation, but a six-member Senate delegation is split down the middle.
Which means Democrats might be able to block the creation of a city of East Cobb, an effort that has gained strength since the Nov. 6 election. But Republicans would likewise be able to veto any legislative support for an expansion of transit into the county.
Home rule depends on the willingness of the Legislature to restrain itself. And so a good deal of skepticism is in order. However, two factors argue in favor of more freedom for legislative delegations from city-mouse territory.
First, there was the debacle of the Eagles Landing cityhood effort. This wholly Republican project was pushed through the Legislature, over the objections of a Henry County delegation dominated by Democrats. The new city was to be created, in part, by taking territory from city of Stockbridge – drastically undercutting that city’s tax base.
Voters were required to approve the adventure on Nov. 6. They didn’t, meaning much GOP political capital was wasted in an ill-judged attempt by a larger body to impose its will on locals.
“Before the debacle of the election, there were a great many [Republicans lawmakers] who were uncomfortable with what they did during the session,” said Steve Henson of Tucker, the Senate minority leader. The Democrat said he didn’t know whether his GOP colleagues had forsworn a sequel.
“I know there are members who probably would like that,” he said.
There’s another reason for Republicans in the Capitol to shy away from unnecessary fights over home rule in metro Atlanta. It’s all in the math, and a 2020 presidential election cycle that will focus on President Trump — and perhaps drive even more Democratic voters to the polls.
The 35 Republicans in the 56-member Senate now hold a six-seat majority in that chamber. Most GOP senators won by comfortable margins, but two did not. John Albers of Roswell and P.K. Martin of Lawrenceville won with a narrow 52 percent of the vote.
The numbers are more threatening for Republicans in the 180-member House. In November, their numbers dwindled by 11 to 105, a majority cushion of 15 votes.
But seven GOP House members scraped by with 52 percent of their districts’ votes — or less: Ed Setzler of Acworth; Sharon Cooper of Marietta; Deborah Silcox of Sandy Springs; Marcus Wiedower of Watkinsville; Mike Cheokas of Americus; Ron Stephens of Savannah; and Dale Rutledge of McDonough. (Rutledge carried the Eagles Landing legislation in the House.)
Two more House Republicans won by 53 percent: Chuck Efstration of Dacula and Houston Gaines of Athens.
Half of the current House Republican majority, perhaps more, could be at risk in 2020.
Also note that most of the legislators listed above come from metro Atlanta and are thus vulnerable in debates that pit rural interests against urban — and suburban concerns. This doesn’t apply just to local legislation, but major social issues as well. Such as “religious liberty” legislation and measures to allow concealed firearms to be carried without a permit.
It’s worth recycling something House Speaker David Ralston told me last month, just before the holidays began. “I think we have to begin with all of us recognizing that each district in this state is different, and what may be popular in Fannin County may not be in Gwinnett, and vice versa,” Ralston said. “We’re a big tent, and I think we focus on the things that unite us, and we work through the things that we disagree about.”
Which doesn’t mean that there won’t be fights between country mice and city mice in the Capitol this year. Just that those fights will have to be picked very, very carefully.
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