Messages reveal alleged effort to draw Democrat out of Georgia PSC district

Patty Durand (left), Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission, alleges that her potential opponent, Commissioner Tim Echols (center), and Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore (right), coordinated to push state legislators to redraw district boundaries to disqualify her from the race.

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Patty Durand (left), Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission, alleges that her potential opponent, Commissioner Tim Echols (center), and Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore (right), coordinated to push state legislators to redraw district boundaries to disqualify her from the race.

Experts say coordination was likely not illegal, but communications raise concerns about political influence in redistricting.

As state lawmakers worked earlier this year to craft political maps that will shape local, state and federal elections across Georgia for a decade, Public Service Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore sent an urgent request to her colleague, Vice Chairman Tim Echols.

“Don’t forget to get her home address and send to me please,” Pridemore wrote in a Jan. 26 text message. Pridemore was referring to Patty Durand, one of two Democrats who sought the party’s nomination to challenge Echols, the Republican incumbent, for the PSC District 2 seat in this November’s election.

Echols quickly obliged. About six weeks later, state lawmakers on party line votes approved new political maps, including one that removed Gwinnett County, where Durand lived at the time, from Echols’ district, threatening her ability to run for the seat.

State lawmakers included one other big change Echols sought to the map, adding Tybee Island in Chatham County where Echols, seeking his third term, wanted to move from his home in Jackson County.

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In text messages obtained through discovery and provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the Public Service Commission, Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore asks Commissioner Tim Echols for the home address of Durand, his potential opponent in this fall's general election.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

In text messages obtained through discovery and provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the Public Service Commission, Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore asks Commissioner Tim Echols for the home address of Durand, his potential opponent in this fall's general election.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
In text messages obtained through discovery and provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the Public Service Commission, Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore asks Commissioner Tim Echols for the home address of Durand, his potential opponent in this fall's general election.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Election law experts say the communications reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are likely not illegal. But the messages offer a rare glimpse into how elected officials can influence the redistricting process for political and personal benefit.

“The text messages are shocking in how brazenly narrow personal interests are driving decisions that should be made with a much more public-interest minded approach,” said Yurij Rudensky, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group focused on strengthening American democracy.

The PSC is a somewhat obscure state regulatory body, but its five members play a key role in deciding how much of the electricity used in Georgia is generated and how much customers pay for it. The five commissioners serve six-year terms and earn a salary of $126,000.

Emails and text messages reviewed by the AJC dating to January 2021 show PSC members discussed trading counties between districts and state lawmakers’ intentions to keep two Republican-controlled PSC seats safe, just as Democrats are becoming more competitive statewide.

Echols and Pridemore declined to comment via a PSC spokesman citing pending litigation. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office, which oversees state elections, also declined to comment.

‘It’s unseemly and it’s wrong’

The texts and emails reviewed by the AJC were obtained by Durand amid litigation with Raffensperger’s office.

Durand is facing potential disqualification from the District 2 race for not meeting necessary residency requirements. PSC seats are voted on statewide, but candidates must live in their districts for 12 months prior to the general election.

Lawmakers approved redrawn maps for all five PSC seats March 4.

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The Georgia General Assembly voted to approve new Public Service Commission districts on March 4, 2022.

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

The Georgia General Assembly voted to approve new Public Service Commission districts on March 4, 2022.

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

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The Georgia General Assembly voted to approve new Public Service Commission districts on March 4, 2022.

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

Credit: Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

Soon after, Durand moved to Rockdale County within the new District 2 boundaries. However, by the time the Nov. 8 general election arrives, she will have only lived there for eight months.

Raffensperger moved to disqualify Durand the day before the May 24 primary, but a Fulton County judge issued an order the next day permitting Durand to stay in the race for now. She won the Democratic nomination. A hearing date on the matter has not been set.

“The idea that powerful incumbents can target competitors for elimination from a race may not be illegal, but it’s unseemly and it’s wrong,” Durand said.

‘Having it in my district makes that work’

As redistricting discussions picked up last year, messages suggest Echols took a hands-on approach at times, while trying to distance himself from the process at others.

In a January 2021 email, Echols messaged former Commissioner Chuck Eaton and Commissioner Jason Shaw to ask whether he could absorb Effingham and Chatham counties into his district, in exchange for four rural counties south and east of Macon.

The reason? Echols wanted to move to Tybee Island and “having it in my district makes that work,” he wrote.

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In emails exchanged with two other PSC commissioners from January 2021, Commissioner Tim Echols expressed his desire to move Chatham County into his district so that he could move to Tybee Island.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

In emails exchanged with two other PSC commissioners from January 2021, Commissioner Tim Echols expressed his desire to move Chatham County into his district so that he could move to Tybee Island.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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In emails exchanged with two other PSC commissioners from January 2021, Commissioner Tim Echols expressed his desire to move Chatham County into his district so that he could move to Tybee Island.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

“I would feel more comfortable if Jason (rather than me) had the conversation with the Map-Drawing chairman,” Echols wrote referencing Shaw.

In emails in February of this year, Echols also referenced Durand’s old address in a conversation with a former chairman of the Gwinnett County GOP. In the exchange, Echols mentioned Trump lost his and Eaton’s district in the 2020 election.

“I know the nice lady up there in Peachtree Corners thinks we were targeting her, but I think it was probably bigger than that,” Echols said.

Echols also told Mike Seigle, the former Gwinnett GOP leader, “I had no conversation with anyone on the committee nor did I see the map until after it was released. I felt I needed to stay out of all of that.”

Echols also asked Pridemore to tell the chairman of the state Senate redistricting effort that he “did not know about the composition of the map?”

“I expressly did not want to know,” Echols added.

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Text messages obtained via discovery in a lawsuit filed by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and shared with the AJC by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the PSC, shed light on Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore and Tim Echols' discussions about redrawing PSC districts.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Text messages obtained via discovery in a lawsuit filed by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and shared with the AJC by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the PSC, shed light on Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore and Tim Echols' discussions about redrawing PSC districts.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Text messages obtained via discovery in a lawsuit filed by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and shared with the AJC by Patty Durand, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat on the PSC, shed light on Commission Chairman Tricia Pridemore and Tim Echols' discussions about redrawing PSC districts.

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: SPECIAL TO THE AJC

But other texts and emails contradict Echols’ claim that he wanted to stay out of the redistricting fray.

After Pridemore shared a map with Echols and asked for Durand’s address, Echols responded, “Since I’m giving everything up but Jackson (County) you could really change the map significantly now.”

If the Fulton court rules that Durand is not eligible to run in District 2, the Democratic Party can select a replacement.

Durand is also challenging Georgia’s residency requirements for PSC seats in a federal lawsuit. A trial date in that case has not been set.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to correctly note that a trial date has not been set in Patty Durand’s federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s residency requirements for Public Service Commission seats.