Lawmakers are feeling mapped out
By Walter C. Jones and Brian Basinger
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Long before federal judges tossed out the legislative district boundaries last month, members of the House Republican Caucus held a somber meeting to pledge their mutual support for whatever the court handed them.
All 71 members signed a document committing their ”lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor” to the cause of remaking the district lines, borrowing their script from the country’s founding fathers.
”We knew that we were all going to have to stick together, and we knew that some of us weren’t coming back,” said state Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, the House Republican leader. ”It’s kind of like going into battle.”
Indeed, at least 33 members of the House won’t be coming back because they are now facing a fellow House member for re-election this year and only one can win per district. Across the Capitol, 18 senators landed in the same districts with fellow incumbents. Three House districts ended up with three incumbents.
Some will retire, such as state Rep. Barbara Bunn, R-Conyers, who announced Tuesday she’s not going to run again.
Others have already announced a try for higher office, including Westmoreland, who is among the handful seeking seats in Congress.
A few more will likely consider higher office now that their legislative seats are no longer safe – probably adding at least one veteran Democrat to the race for the U.S. Senate.
The three-judge panel that threw out the previous maps last month gave the General Assembly until March 1 to draw and approve new House and Senate districts. When that didn’t happen, the court directed a redistricting expert to come up with maps that were unveiled Monday.
The court has set up a three-day ”comment period” on its proposal, giving Democrats and Republicans until noon Friday to suggest changes.
State Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, the Senate president pro tempore and one of the Republican voters who filed the legal challenge against the old maps, said he will ask the court to make some adjustments, such as small changes that could remove incumbents paired together if there is an open district nearby.
”We’re happy with it as it is, but disappointed with the pairings,” said the Savannah lawmaker.
Next week, lawyers for Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, will address the judges in a brief hearing on how this fall’s presidential elections will mesh with the new maps.
Cox, who is the state’s chief of elections, wants to delay the beginning of the candidate-qualification period from April 26 to April 29, with it still ending April 30. She also wants to shorten the period for requesting absentee ballots from 45 days to 21, the window used for municipal elections, said Chris Riggall, Cox’s spokesman.
The possibility of making major changes in court, or of passing maps in the legislature now, both seem very remote.
The outcome has Republican operatives drooling.
”It’s just musical chairs for the Democrats and suddenly they have two or three people for each chair,” said Mark Rountree, whose company, Landmark Communications, helps strategize GOP campaigns. ”There are 108 Democrats in the House right now, and 18 of them are there for the last time this week.”
However, Rountree said it was too early for either party to claim they would win a majority of the 180 House seats that will be up for grabs this fall. Besides the 108 Democrats, the House has 71 Republicans and one independent who usually sides with the GOP.
”I don’t think anybody has the numbers yet to know what’s going to happen,” Rountree said.
He said history shows Republicans stand to gain seats because of the location of the new districts, as well as the fact that President Bush is up for re-election.
”If (House Republicans) don’t win an outright majority at election time, my guess is they will be able to cobble together a majority through party-switchers,” Rountree said.
Still, Democratic strategist Billy Linville, a consultant to House Speaker Terry Coleman, predicted the Democrats would hold 100 to 108 seats in the House and retain control. In the Senate, he said control could go either way and dismissed Republican optimism.
”If they were honest, many of them would admit they are worried about this map,” Linville said.
And yet, there are legislators who are happy with their new districts.
The new maps brought smiles to faces of several Republican senators who have complained about the odd-shaped districts drawn by the Democrat-controlled legislature in 2001.
Under the old map, state Sen. Ralph Hudgens’ district in Northeast Georgia snaked through 16 counties, stretching from the north Georgia foothills to the suburbs of Augusta.
”I can sum it up in one word – difficult,” said Hudgens, R-Comer, explaining how he kept up with his far-flung constituency.
But with the court-drawn plan, Hudgens would have a much more compact district, made up of Barrow County, as well as portions of Elbert, Jackson, Madison and Walton counties.
”It’s not going to be any less of a full-time job,” Hudgens said. ”It’s just going to be that many less county governments and chambers of commerce to deal with. It’s going to enable you to be a more effective legislator.”