House Republicans back off redrawing some district lines in Georgia

State Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, R-Thomaston, presents House Bill 515 in the chamber earlier this month. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

State Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, R-Thomaston, presents House Bill 515 in the chamber earlier this month. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia House Republicans backed off plans to redraw district lines for two vulnerable party members, opting instead to propose minor changes that a key Senate panel then approved Friday morning.

House Bill 515 had originally suggested redrawing district boundaries for eight Republicans and one Democrat. The biggest changes would have strengthened two Republican districts in Metro Atlanta that have become more competitive in elections.

In north metro, it would have taken two predominantly white precincts from state Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, and given them to state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna. In exchange, two predominantly minority precincts from Golick's District 40 would have been added to Jones' District 53. Golick won re-election in November with 53 percent of the vote, down from 60 percent in 2014.

In south metro, state Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, who had seen his margin of victory in District 111 fall from 6 percentage points in 2012 to less than 2 percentage points in 2016, would have gotten several GOP-heavy precincts out of Griffin Republican Rep. Karen Mathiak's neighboring District 73.

All four districts have now been dropped from the plan, which still tweaks boundaries for five GOP-held districts in northwest Cobb County and the northern tip of Fulton County.

The decision comes in the wake of national attention from critics including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder called it a "last-minute power grab" and "political map-rigging at its worst." A coalition of left-leaning organizations also decried the legislation, saying it was "likely illegal" because it shifted thousands of minority voters out of swing districts to protect incumbents.

House Reapportionment Chairman Johnnie Caldwell, R-Thomaston, said Friday that there was never an intent to harm voters or Jones, who said earlier this month she had not been consulted on the changes as is common legislative protocol.

Before a partisan crowd opposed to the bill Friday, Caldwell said it was either Golick or Strickland who first came to him to suggest the changes – he couldn’t remember which, he said. After the bill passed the House on March 3 — the vote came only three days after the bill was introduced, an usually quick turnaround — they both told him they wanted out of the bill.

Caldwell had refused to allow public comment in a hearing on the bill in the House, but the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee took limited comments from 10 people. All opposed the bill and decried how it was handled, saying no community hearings were ever held in the affected districts.

Several Democrats on the panel also had testy exchanges with Caldwell about the process of crafting the bill. One, state Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta, started to walk out of the meeting in protest but took her seat again as the crowd called for her to stay.

The new version of HB 515 then passed on a party line 6-4 vote.

“We certainly have concerns about the transparency of this process,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Districts should not be drawn to serve representatives. Districts should be drawn to serve voters.”