Georgia redistricting begins with Braves joy before political fights

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Legislative session gets underway at state Capitol

Georgia’s special legislative session kicked off Wednesday with lawmakers elated over the Atlanta Braves’ World Series championship win — complete with a tomahawk chop and chant led by the Senate president pro tempore.

The contentious business of remapping the state’s political districts will soon follow.

Leaders in the Republican-majority state House and Senate unveiled proposed maps for the state’s 236 legislative districts on the eve of the special session, and new boundaries for Georgia’s 14 congressional seats are yet to come.

ExploreWhat to watch as Georgia’s redistricting session begins

But Wednesday’s opening session was a mostly celebratory affair before the once-a-decade fight over political lines that will evenly distribute Georgia’s 10.7 million residents among legislative districts.

“Ladies and gentleman of the Senate: How’d the Braves do last night?” Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, a Republican from Gainesville, said before launching into the team’s chant.

Several lawmakers donned Braves paraphernalia as photos of the team’s stars beamed from the big screen over the House chamber.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Most COVID-19 protocols are back in place for the legislative session — lawmakers will be tested for the virus on site, and House members are required to wear masks on the chamber floor and in committee rooms. Senate leaders “strongly encourage” members to wear masks if they haven’t been vaccinated, but they are not required. Mask wearing mostly fell along party lines, with Democrats wearing masks in the Senate and Republicans going without.

House Speaker David Ralston said redistricting will be difficult because rural counties have lost population and metro areas have gained, which will lead to shifts in the state’s representation. Sixty-seven of Georgia’s 159 counties lost population over the past decade while the state as a whole gained 1 million residents, according to census data.

“It’s no secret that Republicans are stronger in rural Georgia than perhaps they are in the metro areas, and that’s where much of the population loss has occurred, so we have to account for that,” said Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge. “That means that some of our Republican colleagues may end up being left behind, and that’s the tough part of this.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The proposed map for the House creates 97 districts that would lean Republican and 83 that would trend toward Democratic candidates, according to a preliminary analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Currently, there are 103 Republicans and 77 Democrats in the House.

The House proposal pairs several incumbent lawmakers into one district, including Rep. Philip Singleton, a Sharpsburg Republican who has been critical of Ralston since before he was first elected, and South Fulton Democratic Rep. Mandisha Thomas. That puts the conservative Singleton in a new and very Democratic-friendly district, something he considers “vindictive gerrymandering.”

“The speaker of the House couldn’t buy me off or beat me at the ballot box, so I am unsurprised he would gerrymander to remove the most conservative Republican in the state from office,” Singleton said. “What is surprising, however, is that if these proposed maps stand, approximately 30,000 Coweta (County) voters who are mostly represented by me will be represented by Fulton County Democrats.”

In the Senate, 33 districts would lean Republican and 23 would lean Democratic under the map proposed by GOP leaders there. There are 34 Republicans and 22 Democrats in the Senate currently.

The proposed map for the Senate dissolves two rural districts currently represented by Republican lawmakers who are running for higher office and moves them to metro Atlanta. It also reconfigures the district currently represented by state Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, from including parts of Democratic-friendly Gwinnett County to including parts of Forsyth County, which skews Republican.

Au declined to comment.

During an organizational meeting of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, Chairman John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, said the panel will take public testimony Thursday for “as long as is reasonable.”

“Depending on how progress goes on Thursday, it could be possible that we’re in a position to vote out something as soon as Friday,” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain asked that senators keep in mind the requests they heard from the public during 11 hearings held across the state.

“I just ask as we move forward with this process ... that we take into consideration all the things they asked for during the summer,” Butler said. “They asked for fair maps and transparency.”

New Georgia district sizes

14 congressional districts: 765,136 residents each

56 state Senate districts: 191,284 residents each

180 state House seats: 59,511 residents each

Georgia population: 10,711,908

Source: House Budget and Research Office