OPINION: Candidates work, wait, and worry as redistricting looms

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Lines for Congressional and state races delayed

“Like a squashed mosquito.” That was the image that came to mind for state Sen. Elena Parent in 2011 the first time she saw her House legislative district, newly reconfigured by the Republican majority during the last round of redistricting in Georgia.

Along with the newly splayed and jagged shape of her district, which she’d flipped from Republican-to-Democrat in 2010, Parent also learned that she’d been drawn into the same one as her friend, state Rep. Scott Holcomb — meaning they’d be running against each other in a Democratic primary.

Parent stepped aside that year and won a state Senate seat the next cycle — a choice she knew she’d have to make when staff at the state Reapportionment office showed her the proposed district map.

“I hoped for the best and expected the worst,” she said. “And I got the worst.”

Welcome to redistricting — the constitutionally required process in which the Georgia Legislature redraws the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts, to reflect the state’s population changes over the last 10 years.

People who have been through the process describe it as a cross between whack-a-mole, the Hunger Games, and three-dimensional chess — an Olympic-level balancing act inside the General Assembly between personal ambitions, party power, legal obligations, and the pressing need to win majority support for the plan.

It’s that last part — the majority vote — that makes redistricting so tricky, since the men and women directly impacted by the changing legislative boundaries are also the lawmakers who have to approve them in a vote later this year.

Chris Huttman, a Democratic consultant, worked for Democrats in the state Capitol when they had the job that Republicans are tackling now, since they hold the majorities in the House and Senate.

“With redistricting, it’s basically every man for himself,” he said. “It’s a lot easier for me to buy dinner for 100 people when I get to decide what they eat, than it is to ask people to decide what they want to eat.”

Complicating the equation even further is the COVID-related delay in the Census figures needed to draw the maps, along with the state’s explosive population growth, especially in large Metro Atlanta counties.

The GOP majority must now find a way to add legislative seats where the population has increased (mostly in Democratic Metro and suburban areas), eliminate seats where the population is shrinking (mostly in rural counties dominated by Republican lawmakers), and somehow keep their own members happy and future majority intact.

House Speaker David Ralston has said he expects that the special redistricting session, usually a late-August event, won’t happen until “the frost is on the pumpkin” (read: the late Fall).

Left with little to do but plow ahead while all of that plays out are the candidates and elected officials themselves, who all represent districts today that are likely to be slightly, or extremely, different when they run for election in 2022.

Two of the most closely watched congressional seats in the process are the 6th District, held by Rep. Lucy McBath, and the 7th, held by Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux. Both are recent pickups for the Democrats and prime targets of Republicans as they redraw the lines to make them more winnable for the GOP.

Bourdeaux recently joined the moderate Blue Dog Coalition on the U.S. House, but said she won’t change that or any other position based on what her district may look like in 2022.

“I am working on representing the district as it’s currently configured and working on what I think is good policy for the people of this district,” she said. “And I think good politics follows good policy.”

The Congresswoman has not heard at all from the Republicans at the state Capitol but said she thinks the district should not undergo wholesale change.

“I am here to defend the 7th District, which is very diverse and really represents a community of interests that should be kept together,” she said.

To Bourdeaux’s point, the 7th is one of several in the state with large minority or immigrant populations. Although the Voting Rights Act won’t require preclearance for Georgia’s new lines, federal law still requires lawmakers to first draw enough minority-opportunity districts to fairly represent the state’s minority populations, a requirement that could make an overhaul of districts like the 6th and 7th difficult for Republicans to achieve.

Dr. Rich McCormick, a Republican who ran for the seat in 2020, is running against Bourdeaux again. But like her, he understands there’s little he could do to influence the lines unless he was a state lawmaker himself.

“It’s just like in the military,” the former Marine said. “When you’re a military guy on duty, there are no friends.”

I caught McCormick on his way to an evening event. He’d had lunch that day with a former statewide Republican.

“There’s a lot of powerful people that are trying to pull people in different directions and put themselves in a better position from the state representative level on up,” he said. “All I can do is control my messaging and my hard work.”

Other candidates are thinking about running for office, knowing the lines of their potential districts could still change.

Melita Easters, the founder of the Georgia WIN List, is telling the pro-choice Democratic women she’s working with to prepare their platforms and secure promises for money from friends and family, but to say nothing publicly.

“The minute you pop your head up, just like in whack-a-Mole, you risk being drawn out of that district,” she warned.

Is that really likely? I asked. “Ab-so-damn-lutely,” she said. “If the Democrats did before, and they did, the Republicans will do whatever they can to improve their own power.”

Easters added that even Republicans could get a less attractive district, or no district at all, based on the realities facing the GOP majority.

Anybody, it seems, could be the next squashed mosquito.

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