Politics and race dominate in Ga. congressional redistricting


Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court told the state of Georgia it relied too heavily on race in creating congressional districts. In drawing a new map, race cannot be the predominant factor, but politics can be.

And politics can be a potent force. The Georgia General Assembly convenes today in special session to undertake this political mapmaking, a task that is certain to affect similar cases in North Carolina, Texas, New York and Louisiana.

At stake are three congressional districts with sizable black populations and eight predominantly white, Republican-voting districts. At stake are "all sorts of power relationships in Georgia," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

In the scramble to preserve incumbency, state legislators will confront a host of competing interests. Georgia's black lawmakers refuse to give up their three U.S. representatives, two of whom owe their elections to the race-dominant map.

White Democrats see an opportunity to redistribute black voters and possibly regain the seats they lost in the Republican tidal wave. The Republicans want as little disruption as possible -- they hold eight seats and a majority in the state's congressional delegation.

"In politics, you have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests," said Don K. Hall, a political consultant advising the Georgia Republican Party. "That's why politics makes strange bedfellows."

For the past few weeks, a parade of witnesses and redistricting plans have appeared in the halls of the State Capitol. The legislature's reapportionment office -- with its high-tech, numbers-crunching computer Herschel (named for former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker) -- has been in overdrive.

And the three-judge panel handling the case wants to see the state's plan by tomorrow.

Because of the short turnaround, some lawmakers believe the federal court in Augusta intends to draw the map itself. It has set an Aug. 22 hearing to review the plans.

Regardless of who reconfigures the map, the Georgia experience is certain to reverberate across the country. Race-dominated districts have helped elect blacks to Congress and county commissions.

"If Georgia complies with the court's decision," said Selwyn Carter, director of the Southern Regional Council's voting rights program, "and adopts a plan that is fair to African-Americans and does not retrogress them, that will send a clear signal to the rest of the South that compliance with the Supreme Court [decision] does not mean you dismantle black districts.

"If Georgia takes African-Americans back in history to the days of almost no representation, that will also send a signal."

'Three and No Retreat'

In throwing out Georgia's majority-black 11th Congressional District, the Supreme Court ruled that political boundaries cannot be based predominantly on race. The district represented by Democratic Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney stretched miles long, from the edge of Atlanta to Savannah, and was 64 percent black. Its shape defied traditional redistricting boundaries, prompting a lawsuit by five Georgians (one of whom has since died).

The legislature has first crack at redrawing the boundaries. Although Democrats dominate the State Capitol, they need the votes of some black lawmakers to win approval.

A map drafted by the white Democratic House speaker reduces the number of majority-black districts from two to one, but provides an ample black voter base to elect a second black.

The black legislative caucus won't even consider anything less than three black seats -- "Three and No Retreat" is its theme.

"It is ludicrous [to suggest] that three little black congressmen are holding up the election of eight other white people," said state Sen. Diane Harvey Johnson, chairwoman of the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus. "With white Democrats waffling and trying to straddle the fence, people no longer know what they stand for.

"That's part of the problem why they are losing. There are ways to draw maps to shore up the potential for the Democrats to get elected and to allow the congressional delegation to reflect the diversity of the people."

The Republican Caucus has proposed a plan with -- in the words of U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr. -- "minimal disruptions." It seeks to preserve the GOP's congressional might and safeguard African-American gains. The result may be a winning coalition among unlikely allies.

The districts as they exist now were created by a Republican-controlled U.S. Justice Department. Democrats charge that blacks were packed into three districts at the expense of the Democratic Party, which has been steadily losing voters throughout the South.

In the past two elections, Georgia's white Democrats suffered the consequences. The composition of the congressional delegation went from 9-1 Democratic to 8-3 Republican -- the first time since Reconstruction that no white Democratics held congressional seats.

"This current plan basically segregated our state," said Steve C. Anthony, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party. "This is a chance for us to come back together and operate together more than separately."

Legislators who represent districts with only a small percentage of minorities have no reason to address the concerns of African-Americans because an election can be won without them, he said.

Democrats also argue that it's possible for a black to win a congressional seat without living in a majority-black district. They cite incumbent Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr.'s election in 1994 in which 48 percent of the people who voted were black.

Pamela S. Karlan, a voting rights professor at the University of Virginia law school, said congressional redistricting goes beyond the mechanics of mapmaking. "Georgia is one piece of a very large puzzle," said Ms. Karlan, who testified before a legislative committee in support of the black caucus.

Ms. Karlan said the question facing the nation is, "Do you want substantive racial integration of Congress or don't you?"

"The legitimacy of government of a multiracial society like America depends on everyone feeling that they have a voice," she said. "When people don't feel they have a voice, they feel less of an obligation to respect the process."

30 or 40 plans

The process, as practiced by the Bush Justice Department in 1990-1991, compelled Larry H. Chesin and A. Lee Parks to file the original lawsuit that challenged the Georgia congressional map. The level of gerrymandering was significant, they charged.

So much so that when a political scientist tried to track the boundaries of the 11th Congressional District he got lost, Mr. Chesin said.

"Race is not the exclusive determination of what a congressional district should be," said Mr. Chesin, who has been called a racist for filing the lawsuit. "There needs to be some recognition that people who live in the same area and have the same concerns be put in districts that are cognizable and make sense in the real world."

Mr. Chesin and his partner expect to send the federal court panel their redistricting plan. "We want to try and recognize minority voting strength where it exists," he said, referring to the city of Atlanta and DeKalb County.

Ms. McKinney wants to hold onto as much of her district as possible. But she also has introduced legislation into Congress that would change the system as we know it. She has proposed multimember districts under the concept of proportional voting.

In the corridors of the State Capitol, some say, as many as 30 or 40 redistricting plans have been circulated, debated or whispered about.

"Anyone who can sit down at a computer can draw up a plan," said Mr. Anthony, who noted that it takes three days for legislation to clear one house. "The game is just starting. It is just the first quarter. A lot will happen before a plan is voted up or down on the floor."

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