Once every decade, a peculiar spectacle occupies Georgia’s General Assembly.
It’s a time when lawmakers pay little heed to lobbyists, much less constituents. Their focus instead becomes much more primal: protecting themselves, undermining their enemies, and maximizing the strength of their political parties.
Nowhere is this truer than in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, the site of the nation's most closely watched election this year. Over four decades, state legislators transformed the 6th District from a poor, rural and reliably Democratic outpost to a wealthier, well-educated Republican stronghold in Atlanta's northern suburbs – a place where no Democrat was ever supposed to win.
The district’s repeated gerrymandering reflects the high stakes involved in redistricting, which is supposed to ensure equal representation for all in federal and state legislative bodies. Instead, it can dilute minorities’ voting strength, diminish the competitiveness of elections, and even render one person’s vote less valuable than another’s.
At the same time, the 6th District illustrates the fleeting nature of power gained through redistricting. Its boundaries clearly were crafted to benefit Republican candidates. For years, they did. Tom Price, who left the congressional seat to become the U.S. secretary of health and human services, never received less than 60 percent of the vote in seven elections. Republican presidential nominees carried the district with comparable margins from 2000 to 2012.
But 2016 was different. Donald Trump got just 48 percent in the 6th District, one percentage point more than Democrat Hillary Clinton. And in this year's congressional primary, Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short of winning outright. If he beats Republican Karen Handel in a runoff on June 20, Ossoff would become the first Democrat to represent the district in 38 years.
The recent results could be an anomaly, another political norm disrupted in the age of Trump. Or they may signify a fundamental shift in Georgia politics that could accelerate after the next census in 2020.
“It’s been rock-red Republican for a long while,” Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said of the 6th District. “But the suburbs are changing. Metro Atlanta is changing.”
‘Kill off Gingrich’
For 134 years, Democratic control of the 6th District was broken only by the Civil War, Reconstruction and Newt Gingrich.
From its inception in 1845, the district sent a succession of Democrats to Congress, before and after the nine years the seat sat vacant because Georgia had seceded. They included a future governor, future justices of the Georgia Supreme Court, and the long-serving chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Carl Vinson represented Georgia's 10th District for 20 years before he was redistricted into the 6th in the 1930s. He left office in 1965.
Vinson’s successor, John James Flynt Jr., served 14 years. After barely defeating a little-known history professor in 1974 and 1976, Flynt chose not to run again in 1978.
In Washington, Gingrich’s profile rose quickly. At home, he struggled. He won the 1990 election by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Gingrich had long been an irritant to one of his most prominent constituents: Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy, whose home in Bremen fell inside the 6th District. When redistricting came around in 1991, shortly after Gingrich's close call, Murphy's Democrats seized the opportunity.
“Speaker Murphy didn’t like having a Republican represent him,” said Charles Bulloch, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Murphy’s goal was simple, Bulloch said: “Kill off Gingrich.”
For decades, the 6th District had covered several counties west and southwest of Atlanta, all the way to the Alabama border. But in 1991, lawmakers created an entirely new footprint. The district’s new heart was Cobb County, the fast-growing suburb northwest of Atlanta. Democrats hoped Gingrich might drop out rather than offer himself to a new constituency.
Their plan backfired. Gingrich quickly moved to Cobb and spent weekends and congressional recesses there introducing himself to voters. The next year, Gingrich easily won his new district. Then, two years later, he masterminded the Republican surge that elevated him to U.S. House speaker, shut down government services for 27 days, impeached President Bill Clinton over his affair with a White House intern, and subsided only when Gingrich, admitting his own extramarital activity, resigned from Congress.
Murphy died in 2007. Gingrich, who did not respond to a recent request for an interview, once described the redistricting as Murphy's revenge.
“Murphy has just hated me ever since we ran a candidate against him in ’88,” Gingrich said in a 1991 interview.
“Scared him so bad that he repudiated Dukakis,” Gingrich said, referring to the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. “And then we took his repudiation of Dukakis … and faxed it all over the South and within a week they closed every Dukakis campaign headquarters in the South.
“Murphy never recovered from that humiliation. He told people privately he had only one goal in reapportionment, and that was to get rid of me.”
Recasting a delegation
As Georgia Democrats schemed to unseat Gingrich, Washington Republicans hatched their own plot.
When redistricting geared up after the 1990 census, the Republican National Committee dispatched an attorney named Ben Ginsberg to Georgia and other Southern states. His was an unlikely mission: form alliances with black lawmakers. Almost all were Democrats, and many thought their party took them for granted.
In a 2016 book, author David Daley chronicled Ginsberg's approach: "Use the Voting Rights Act's provisions governing majority-minority districts to create African-American seats in Southern states. Work closely with minority groups to encourage candidates to run. Then pack as many Democratic voters as possible inside the lines, bleaching the surrounding districts whiter and more Republican, thus resegregating congressional representation while increasing the number of African Americans in Congress."
Daley’s book took its title from Ginsberg’s profane description of his own work: “Rat**cked.”
“The South was changing,” Daley said in an interview. Many African-American politicians were eager to speed up the change, even if it meant aligning with Republicans and harming white Democrats.
“They saw the older white male members of Congress not doing a good job of representing their interests,” Daley said.
The result, over more than two decades, was a near-total recasting of Georgia’s congressional delegation.
In 1992, Gingrich was the lone Republican among the state’s 10 congressmen; eight of the nine Democrats were white. In 2016, white Republicans won 10 of the state’s 14 seats; all four Democrats were African Americans.
Republicans aided this turnaround by creating three contiguous districts in metro Atlanta — the 4th, the 5th and the 13th — where nearly three-fifths of residents are black.
In the 6th District, by contrast, just 11 percent of residents are black, about half as many as 30 years ago.
Ginsberg did not respond to telephone messages and emails requesting an interview.
Republicans used Ginsberg’s methods as a foundation to nationalize redistricting, Daley said.
After the 2010 census, “the redistricting began with the Republicans having the only seats at the table,” Daley said. “The technological power they had was unheard of. It makes it possible to craft those lines not only with surgical precision, but to have them last and become a firewall for the ensuing decade.”
Such gerrymandering disenfranchises many voters, according to a study by the Institute for Southern Studies, a progressive research group based in Durham, North Carolina.
Democrats received 39 percent of votes for Georgia congressional seats last year. Yet the party holds just four of 14 seats, or 29 percent. The gap is even larger in other Southern states, the study found. In North Carolina, for example, Democrats got almost half the votes but won only one-fourth of the seats.
Such disparities corrode confidence in elections, said Allie Yee, the institute’s associate director and the study’s author.
“It depresses the public’s interest in being involved in the political process,” Yee said in an interview. “They feel their vote’s not going to count, it’s not going to make a difference.”
‘You didn’t hear that’
One Saturday morning this spring, a Republican state legislator seemed to give many 6th District residents a reason to question whether their votes mattered.
"I'll be very blunt," Sen. Fran Millar of Dunwoody said at a Republican breakfast in DeKalb County. "These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson's protégé to be my representative."
“And you didn’t hear that,” Millar continued, according to a tape recording of the event.
Millar’s Senate district overlays much of the 6th, and in 2011 he pushed for boundaries that maintained what he calls “communities of interest.” These included several recently incorporated cities: Dunwoody, Brookhaven and Tucker, all of them enclaves of white, conservative voters in a majority-black liberal county.
Millar sees change coming, though. Clinton carried his Senate district with 56 percent. In his own race, Millar got 55 percent, compared with 61 percent in 2014.
At the Republican breakfast, Millar mentioned Johnson, a black Democrat who represents the 4th District, because Ossoff is a former aide to the congressman.
Millar knew he might be accused of racism – unfairly, he said in a recent interview (in which he nonetheless amped up his earlier remarks by invoking the name of another black politician, former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney).
The 6th District “was drawn to get away from the Cynthia McKinney-Hank Johnson political philosophy,” Millar said. “Hank Johnson’s basically a socialist. I think he’s weak on national security. Big government. Big spending.”
All of which is fine if that’s what voters want, Millar said. But in his estimation, those who live in the 6th District don’t.
It’s not always up to voters, however.
Elena Parent had barely taken the seat she won in Georgia’s General Assembly before redistricting took it away.
It was 2011, and the Republican-led Legislature adopted new maps that, in many instances, paired Democratic incumbents in one new district. If Parent, a Democrat from DeKalb County, wanted to stay in office, she would have to run against another incumbent from her own party.
Ousted not by voters, but by other lawmakers, Parent sat out two years before winning a state Senate seat in 2014. She now represents part of the 6th Congressional District, and has made redistricting a signature issue.
The 6th District shows how partisan redistricting blunts the effects of demographic changes, Parent said. Although just 13 percent of the district’s residents are black, another 13 percent are Latino and 11 percent are of Asian descent.
The district, she said, is “trending purple,” but election results haven’t always reflected the shift.
“You can take a 50-50 electorate and draw a 75-25 district,” she said. “Which is just mind blowing to me.”
Parent’s proposal and a similar measure by state Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, drew support from an unusual collection of activists. Some mobilized after Trump’s election in November. Others are Tea Party loyalists.
“When everybody hears about this, it’s overwhelmingly, ‘Yeah, we need to figure out a way to do this better, where the fox is not guarding the henhouse, so to speak,’” said Jeff Ploussard of the Georgia Redistricting Coalition.
Ploussard was one of the 200 or so people who packed a Capitol meeting room for a hearing on Parent’s proposal this spring. Only a handful got to address lawmakers.
After an hour, Ploussard said, “they just adjourned the meeting without a vote.”
The proposed constitutional amendment will return in 2018.
But the chances that lawmakers will put it on the ballot for public approval – that they might give up perhaps their most effective tool for remaining in office – are slim.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” state Sen. Ben Watson, a Republican from Savannah who chairs the chamber’s Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, said of the proposal. “It still rubs up against the U.S. Constitution. That’s what the states are supposed to do.”
And Watson can’t quite get past his suspicion that partisan motives lurk in the background.
“I wonder,” he said. “If the Democrats were in the majority, would they be touting it so much?”
Alan Judd is a former investigative reporter for the AJC. He has written about persistently dangerous apartment complexes in metro Atlanta, juvenile justice, child welfare, sexual abuse by physicians, patient deaths in state psychiatric hospitals, and other topics.