New districts further polarize

Republicans in the state Capitol are about to put the finishing touches on a series of maps that are likely to make politics in Georgia more partisan, more racially polarized — and more predictable than at any time since the 1960s, a data analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicates.

In a congressional map set to be approved this week, five Republican districts would be made more Republican, and two Democratic districts would become more Democratic. The state’s most competitive district — held by John Barrow of Savannah, Georgia’s lone white Democrat in Congress — now could give a Republican challenger a 20-point advantage in 2012 based on votes cast in recent elections.

Barrow aside, the new congressional map offers more security to incumbents of both parties, and also could turn November elections into mere formalities. With one party dominant, summer primaries would determine all. And razor-wired campaign rhetoric, with no need to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, is likely to get even sharper.

“The redistricting for the last 10 to 20 years naturally has been creating these more ideologically driven districts both on the Republican side and Democratic side,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist and an expert on redistricting. “Moderate independents have fewer places to go.”

It’s been happening around the country, but has deep roots in Georgia. The state’s new congressional map would bring to completion a 20-year project born of an alliance struck by the likes of Cynthia McKinney and other African-American political leaders. When Democrat Zell Miller was governor, they began working with Republicans to boost both factions by making white congressional districts in Georgia whiter, and black districts blacker.

Of Georgia’s 14 new congressional districts, 10 Republican-leaning districts would be majority white, and four Democratic-leaning districts would be majority African-American.

Like the proposed new congressional map, new state House and Senate maps signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal last week take aim at white Democratic incumbents — with the same ruthlessness that Democrats once applied to the GOP. Taken as a whole, Democrats say Republicans are leveling a final blow at the biracial Democratic coalition that led Georgia out of the civil rights era.

“Resegregation — call it what it is. If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, told a legislative committee. “These maps fail to recognize both the spirit and letter of the Voting Rights Act.”

Republicans dismiss the accusation. They say that, while federal law protects the ballots of individual African-Americans, it does not guarantee the success of their political alliances.

“I think the Democratic Party of Georgia — if it feels like it’s losing moderates and moderate conservatives — they need to look in the mirror,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “They’ve put up the sign a long time ago that people like that weren’t welcome unless they were liberal.”

Numbers tell tale

Maps are revised every 10 years, based on population shifts. Republicans are in charge of the process because they now control the Legislature. Using precinct-level data from the November 2010 general election for U.S. Senate and governor, an AJC analysis of the proposed maps shows:

● Congressional districts occupied by Republican incumbents Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County (3rd); Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville (7th); and Phil Gingrey of Marietta (11th) were boosted by additional GOP voters.

● Congressional districts occupied by Democratic incumbents John Lewis of Atlanta (5th) and Sanford Bishop of Albany have added Democratic voters. Bishop’s 2nd District has become the state’s fourth majority-black congressional district by adding about 50,000 African-American residents.

● Most of the black population added to Bishop’s 2nd District, many of them residents of Bibb County, were drawn from the 8th District of Republican Austin Scott, who next year faces his first re-election bid. The 8th District also received an infusion of 16,476 white residents.

● Georgia’s new 9th District, produced by gains in the 2010 census, would be the most Republican in the state, stretching from Gainesville to Georgia’s northeast corner. The Republican nominee will have a 59-point advantage over any Democratic challenger.

● The new 14th District (formerly the 9th) in Georgia’s northwest corner, occupied by Republican incumbent Tom Graves of Ranger, would be the second-strongest GOP bastion, with a 49-point Republican advantage. The district is almost 80 percent white.

Lawmakers also revised state House and Senate maps. Those show that Republicans could achieve two-thirds majorities in both chambers next November — enough to pass constitutional amendments without Democratic interference.

House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, on Thursday said simple math drove changes.

“In those areas that have been represented by the Democrats in the House and Senate and in Congress, those areas generally lost population,” he said, also noting that the new House maps create “a greater number of majority-minority districts then we ever had in the history of our state.”

Democrats cry foul

That, Democrats say, is precisely what’s wrong with the Republican maps.

They accuse Republicans of “packing” black voters into districts in order to lessen their influence — a practice forbidden by federal law. The 1965 Voting Rights Act “did not seek to shuffle minority voters into enclaves with their own legislators in isolated voting districts,” House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta said in debate. “And it surely did not imagine a white party and a black party.”

Most crucial to the future of Democrats will be the attitude of federal judges toward the treatment of African-Americans and other minorities in districts where they make up less than 50 percent of the voting population. For instance, in the Senate, Democrats point to the district once held by a young Jimmy Carter of Plains. In District 14, 43 percent of the voters are African-American. For years, they have elected George Hooks of Americus, one of the Legislature’s few remaining white rural Democrats.

The new Senate map divides District 14’s black voters into three other South Georgia districts. Hooks is targeted for elimination — he now lives in a Republican district. And District 14 has been relocated north of Atlanta. African-Americans now make up only 9 percent of its population.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, said he and his GOP colleagues followed guidelines issued by the Obama administration, which he said included that the Senate have no fewer than 14 majority-minority districts. The map, he said, includes 15 such districts. “I’m into following the law,” Seabaugh said.

Judges have been largely silent on whether the Voting Rights Act protects African-American “influence” districts, but former state lawmaker and labor commissioner Michael Thurmond — a veteran of redistricting — says Democrats should pursue the issue.

“It dilutes minority voting strength. It would be a novel argument, but it would be impactful,” Thurmond said.

Odd alliance started trend

But ultimately, African-Americans will have to own up to their role in the near-extinction of Southern white Democrats, Thurmond said.

The year was 1991, and the Legislature was drawing new maps. Georgia had only one majority black congressional district, covering the city of Atlanta and much of Fulton County. Lewis, a soft-spoken veteran of Selma, had recently beaten Julian Bond for the seat.

African-Americans in a Legislature dominated by white rural Democrats wanted to send two more black Georgians to Congress. And Republicans were out to protect an up-and-comer in their ranks: Newt Gingrich, the state’s sole Republican in Congress.

Thurmond was chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, but argued against the “max black” strategy. “I knew the max black strategy would lead to less influence,” Thurmond said. “I prayed that I was wrong, but it turned out I wasn’t.”

Black legislators overruled their caucus leader. “Somewhere in that process, as we saw things getting kind of squirrely, a couple things became obvious,” said Steve Anthony, then the chief of staff of House Speaker Tom Murphy. “One was that an alliance had been struck.”

Together, black Democrats and white Republicans had a near-majority in the House. Similar cooperation was occurring in the Senate.

The most startling product of the alliance was a new majority-black, 17-county congressional district that snaked from south DeKalb County to Macon, then stretched east to Augusta. Conveniently, it siphoned African-Americans out of Gingrich’s 6th District.

One of the House members at the heart of the alliance between Republicans and African-Americans won the new, serpentine 11th District in 1992. In a sense, Cynthia McKinney — who beat Thurmond in the primary — was a gift to Democrats from a rising Georgia GOP. (Bishop first won his seat that year, too.)

A protected Gingrich would win his own seat in 1992 — and become speaker of the U.S. House in 1994, when Republicans won a majority.

The maps were eventually thrown out by federal courts because of an over-reliance on race, but Anthony said the die was cast.

“This started a new approach to reapportionment,” he said. “By the 2002-2004 elections, you had a majority of the districts in the country, and even in Georgia, being overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican.”

Intra-party squabbles

Anthony and others trace today’s rancor in Washington to the emphasis on “safe” congressional districts sought by both Republicans and Democrats. “There’s no incentive to listen to the other side — whoever the other side is. There’s no reason to compromise,” he said.

That could mean more unintended consequences.

“It’ll be a little like Democratic days,” predicted Swint, the KSU political scientist. “You’ll have divisions within the party.”

Last week provided a glimpse of the future. In a pique over their treatment in the redistricting process, Democrats in the Legislature removed themselves from the debate over shifting the date of next year’s transportation sales tax referendum.

Republicans found themselves paralyzed by a clash between the party’s two dominant factions — a tea party opposed to new taxes under any circumstance, and business interests who support more investment in the state’s infrastructure.

Gov. Nathan Deal pulled the legislation that would have moved the regional vote to the November general election.

In congress

Georgia’s current House members:

District 1: Jack Kingston, R

District 2: Sanford Bishop, D

District 3: Lynn Westmoreland, R

District 4: Hank Johnson, D

District 5: John Lewis, D

District 6: Tom Price, R

District 7: Rob Woodall, R

District 8: Austin Scott, R

District 9: Tom Graves, R

District 10: Paul Broun, R

District 11: Phil Gingrey, R

District 12: John Barrow, D

District 13: David Scott, D

How we got the story

AJC database specialist John Perry took the precinct-level voting results from the races for U.S. Senate and governor in 2010 and recast them according to the new congressional district lines proposed by Republican lawmakers. AJC political columnist Jim Galloway, author of the Political Insider blog, and state government reporters Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres interviewed legislators and experts. Galloway is a 32-year AJC veteran who directed coverage of the 1991 redistricting session of the Legislature.