‘Power grab’: Republicans revamp local districts over Democratic objections

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

ATHENS — Since winning a hard-fought victory to join the Athens-Clarke County Commission a few years ago, Russell Edwards has helped push this liberal stronghold further to the left.

He’s backed a government-sanctioned homeless camp, supported liberal economic policies and warred with Gov. Brian Kemp over virus restrictions. So it came as no surprise that GOP state legislators tried to redraw his district’s boundaries. It was the way they did it that stunned him.

On Jan. 6, four Republicans who represent portions of Athens unveiled a political map that prevents him and two other liberal commissioners from running for reelection by renumbering their districts and placing them in seats that won’t be on the ballot until 2024.

“I don’t know what the motivations are. They don’t really matter,” Edwards said. “The result is a punishment — they’re taking away my civil and political rights. My right to stand for public office has been taken away.”

The redrawing of state legislative and congressional maps last year by Republican leaders makes it likely the GOP will maintain control of the Legislature and pick up a seat in the U.S. House.

But a less visible process is now underway on the local level as lawmakers reconfigure maps that could significantly shift the power of elected officials in Atlanta’s suburbs and even Democratic bastions such as Athens.

In Gwinnett County, Republicans are trying to reclaim a seat on the five-member County Commission — even if it means circumventing long-standing custom in the state Capitol by going directly to a full General Assembly vote.

Cobb County Democrats are bracing for an attempt by Republicans to override an election map that could threaten their political gains. And some legislators expect the Augusta-Richmond County Commission — which also has a newly elected Democratic majority — to get a GOP-inspired overhaul.

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

“It’s a power grab. They’re hoping that no one pays attention,” said state Rep. Erick Allen, a Smyrna Democrat running for lieutenant governor. “It’s an insult to democracy.”

The Republican supporters of the redrawing offered various reasons for the efforts: keeping more neighborhoods intact, creating more majority-minority districts and fulfilling a desire to give conservatives more influence.

Many echo state Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican who represents a slice of Athens. He framed his proposal as a way to “protect the voice of every Athenian” rather than shield incumbents.

“That’s why our map keeps communities of interest whole and increases the number of majority nonwhite districts, ensuring greater opportunities for minority communities to be represented,” he said.

‘Extreme partisan’

Many of the local redistricting fights involve complex legislative procedures that can be hard for citizens to follow. Typically, measures such as county commission maps are approved by the local delegation and then rubber-stamped by the full Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.

But as Republicans lost control of local delegations in some counties, GOP lawmakers are poised to short-circuit the process by taking the maps to the full Legislature for a vote without the seal of approval of area legislators.

And unlike previous redistricting efforts, the redrawing of local political boundaries is no long subject to federal oversight following a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of the sharpest clashes has centered on Gwinnett, where a dramatic political shift underway since 2016 turned the county from a Republican stronghold into a Democratic one.

Credit: Courtesy of Gwinnett Democrats

Credit: Courtesy of Gwinnett Democrats

Democrats now fill all five seats on the County Commission for the first time in decades and have firm control of the local legislative delegation, which they hold with a 19-6 advantage.

The Democratic-controlled delegation backed a bill that made minimal changes to the current commission lines — which were drawn by Republicans a decade earlier — but the GOP leadership quickly redrew it so at least one of the commission seats will likely be won by a conservative.

The Republicans’ proposed map also would change district boundaries enough that one commissioner would have to move to run for reelection, while another would live outside his district for two years.

It reminded Democrats of a surprise measure brought during last year’s special legislative session that would have doubled the County Commission’s size, weakened the role of the newly elected Democratic chairwoman and more broadly shift power back to the GOP.

“The fact that they are willing to break local government in Gwinnett just so they can get one politician on the Board of Commissioners, I think, is wrong,” said state Rep. Sam Park, a Gwinnett Democrat who was at the forefront of the county’s transformation when he won his seat in 2016.

Republicans fired back, accusing Democrats of failing to work across the aisle. State Rep. Bonnie Rich, a powerful House Republican who represents a Suwanee-based district, said she wants commission boundaries that give voters in the conservative northern part of Gwinnett a louder voice.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It appears that there has been extreme partisan gerrymandering,” Rich said. “The way the maps are currently drawn, we have no representation from north Gwinnett.”

The House Governmental Affairs Committee passed Rich’s proposed map Tuesday as a substitute for Park’s.

“Gwinnett is taking it from all sides this session because our people had the nerve to turn out and to vote for leaders who represent our values and our communities,” Zainab Khan, a voting rights activist from Norcross, told the committee. “Sore losers who are not ready to accept the changing demographics that are already a reality in Gwinnett should not be making our maps for us. Our duly elected local leaders should.”

Separately, a GOP-backed measure to make school board elections in Gwinnett nonpartisan is gaining traction despite months of intense criticism. The legislation comes after the county’s school board flipped to Democrats in 2020 following decades of Republican control.

In Cobb County, meanwhile, Democrats back new local maps with minimal changes to the current boundaries after narrowly winning control of the County Commission in 2020. But Cobb Republicans are planning to push their own version of maps that could shift the balance back to the GOP.

‘The legal limits’

The dynamic in Athens is different. Though the county is solidly Democratic — it voted 70% for Joe Biden in 2020 — Republicans control the state legislative delegation because of district boundaries that slice off parts of Athens and stretch deep into neighboring rural counties.

Democrats warned of the upheaval the plan introduced by Gaines and fellow Republican state Rep. Marcus Wiedower would cause by putting two-thirds of voters in new districts.

Opponents of the new boundaries have held rallies and staged demonstrations to combat the changes. Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz headlined a rally at City Hall to decry the proposed map that drew dozens of supporters on a cold January afternoon.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

“Maybe you want changes,” Girtz told the crowd. “But let me tell you: If you want change, the change should be in your hands.”

But the developments of the past week show how little power local Democrats and other critics have to stop the map from moving forward in the Legislature.

Three of the county’s 10 commissioners refused to support a compromise plan drafted by state Rep. Spencer Frye, the county’s sole Democratic legislator, which weakened the case for consensus and led to a reprimand of the holdouts by the local Democratic Party.

And last week, the state House voted 124-39 to approve a package of maps that included the new Athens-Clarke County Commission boundaries, despite a warning from Frye about a habit of “targeting seated elected officials” that dated to Reconstruction.

“I’m more familiar with targeting from the football field, not to make light of that,” quipped House Speaker David Ralston, the Republican leader of the chamber.

Edwards, the liberal commissioner about to be excised from his district, said the proposed boundaries were no laughing matter.

“Things are not going the way Republicans want them to, so they’re just blowing it all up to see what happens. It’s like chaos theory for democracy,” he said. “We’re in the twilight of Republican domination, and they’re pushing the legal limits.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.