Former House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, now a Democratic candidate for governor, is embroiled in a dispute over what role she played in a 2015 redistricting bill that moved black voters out of legislative districts that were held by Republicans and based in McDonough and Stockbridge. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Abrams faces criticism in dispute over 2015 Georgia redistricting bill

Democrat Stacey Abrams is facing backlash over her role in legislation that helped two vulnerable Republicans by shifting minority voters out of their districts.

The tiff centers on a 2015 redistricting bill passed by the state Legislature, now the topic of a federal lawsuit accusing Republicans of racial gerrymandering in a broader redrawing of 17 Georgia House districts.

In depositions, several Republican lawmakers suggested or said outright that they’d been given a green light on the bill from Abrams, a candidate for governor who was then the House’s top Democrat.

The measure passed the House unanimously; Abrams’ rival in the May 22 primary, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, was among the lawmakers who approved it.

Once House Bill 566 crossed over into the Senate, though, Democrats put up a fight. They pinpointed changes that shifted black voters out of a pair of districts — one in Stockbridge, one in McDonough — held by white Republicans.

Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she had been misled about the contents of the bill by state Rep. Randy Nix, a Republican from LaGrange and chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee. She said after she realized the extent of the changes, “I expressed my deep discontent.”

Redistricting bills are drafted as a series of complex numbers that are meaningless without maps, and Abrams’ campaign did not say whether she received drawings of the changes.

The dispute underlines the fractured support for Abrams among fellow Democrats in the state Legislature that has helped Evans win support from several prominent party leaders.

Evans has declined to comment, but several of her supporters who were in the Legislature at the time have accused Abrams of purposely weakening her own party.

“It’s worse than negligence. It’s collaboration with the Republican Party to dilute black voting strength,” said former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who has long been an outspoken critic of Abrams. “I was there: When I first saw the data, I went through the roof. I couldn’t believe it.”

Others who opposed the redistricting disagree with Fort’s take. They say the Senate had more time to vet the legislation.

“I don’t know if our former colleagues are suffering from amnesia or just being malicious, but they know it’s not the truth,” said state Rep. Al Williams, an Abrams backer. “I think the Trumpitis has invaded them, too. It’s going around these days.”

Francys Johnson, who was president of the Georgia NAACP in 2015 and later joined the legal challenge to the measure, said Abrams did not knowingly conspire with the GOP to weaken her party’s candidates.

Democrats generally have staffers ready to pore over sweeping changes to maps that come every decade after each U.S. census. In this case, though, they didn’t have the resources to conduct the same type of wholesale review they typically do during reapportionment hearings. In Johnson’s view, Democrats were simply caught off guard.

“It was not clear or apparent what changes were made,” said Johnson, who is now running for a U.S. House seat. “I was there in real time, and I know the changes they were proposing they tried to sneak through. And when we caught them, we organized resistance.”

‘Mistaken’

Republicans have pushed back on Abrams’ assertion that she was steered by GOP leaders in the wrong direction.

State House Speaker David Ralston said in a statement that while he often doesn’t wade into other party’s primary races, he “cannot stand by while someone cast aspersions” on Nix.

“Randy Nix is the chairman of our ethics committee and a Methodist minister. His character is beyond reproach,” Ralston said. “Anyone who asserts otherwise must surely be mistaken.”

And Nix objected to Abrams’ contention that he or his GOP colleagues misled her about the contents of the redistricting legislation.

He recalled a preliminary conversation with Abrams about the bill and said he invited her and others to participate in a meeting. And he said there was no effort to shield the outlines of the changes from Abrams, though he acknowledged some boundary lines were adjusted as the measure progressed.

“I have great respect for her,” Nix said of Abrams, “but I certainly don’t think she was misled.”

‘Never heard from her’

Abrams spokeswoman Priyanka Mantha said Thursday that Nix “specifically walked” through the changes to several districts but never mentioned changes to the two boundaries that helped the vulnerable Republicans.

She said that Abrams then tasked her top deputy, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, with “checking in about those changes with the affected members.”

In a statement, Hugley said Abrams never endorsed or approved the changes and credited her with persuading the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to challenge the new lines in court.

“Prior to the vote, no Democrats or any allies expressed anything objectionable regarding the maps,” Hugley said. “Once the effect of the changes were known, to combat Republican gerrymandering effects, she enlisted allies in the Legislature and redistricting and legal communities to fight the changes.”

State Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said he had only a passing conversation with Abrams about the measure, recalling that she generally said it was “OK” after it passed the House.

And Fort, then the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, said Abrams played no prominent role in rallying opposition to the measure in the Senate, which approved the bill on a party-line vote.

“I led the fight in the Senate. I never heard from her,” Fort said. “We had to fight the fight that she should have fought.”

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