Originally created 03/14/97

Legislature rushes to approve new voting districts



ATLANTA - Legislative committees rushed Thursday to approve new General Assembly boundary maps that turn three more black-majority districts into white seats.

The new lines, agreed to after three days of federal mediation, alter about 45 of the General Assembly's 236 legislative districts.

They cut the number of seats in which the majority of registered voters are black from 45 to 42. There were more than 50 black-majority seats when lawmakers first won approval from the U.S. Justice Department for political boundaries in 1992.

Since then, the state has been embroiled in a racially charged court battle over the way lawmakers drew congressional and legislative districts.

Lawmakers have until Monday to approve the new districts - which would end the litigation - or the settlement will die for this session. Under General Assembly rules, a bill that doesn't make it through at least one body by the 33rd day of the session is dead for the year.

The Senate Reapportionment Committee unanimously approved the Senate map. The House version was approved by that body's reapportionment committee 18-1.

"We don't have a choice but to accept it," said Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta.

"This was a compromise that was fought over very long and very hard," Deputy Attorney General Dennis Dunn told the Senate Reapportionment Committee Thursday. "Every line in this plan was fought over. The alternative to this map is further litigation or the court drawing your map."

Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, called the settlement "the best we can do under the circumstances.

"Unfortunately, we had to settle out of court. Many African-American districts would be devastated if the courts draw the districts," he added.

Under the new maps, the black voting-age population in three districts - those represented by Sen. Mark Taylor, D-Albany and Reps. Alberta Anderson, D-Waynesboro and Gerald Greene, D-Cuthbert - would fall below 50 percent, turning them into white-majority seats. Taylor and Greene are white, while Anderson is black.

It also makes the districts of some black lawmakers, such as Rep. Eugene Tillman, D-Brunswick, a bit whiter.

One area of Georgia that went untouched was Savannah. Although at least four black House and Senate Savannah seats were challenged in court, the settlement leaves them unchanged. Districts in middle and north Georgia also were largely unaffected.

Under the plan:

ú The districts of black Reps. Henry Howard, D-Augusta, and Ben Allen, D-Augusta, and white Rep. George DeLoach, R-Hephzibah, would gain black voters, while Anderson's seat would become whiter. The population of voting-age black residents in Anderson's Richmond/Burke district would decline from 54 percent to 48.75 percent.

ú Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, would represent much of Augusta, but would lose his native Burke County, which he currently represents, to the district of Cheeks.

ú Cheeks also would pick up Warren and Glascock counties from the district of Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. The portion of Columbia County Cheeks now represents would be placed in Brush's district.

The percentage of black voters in Walker's district would decline slightly, and increase in Cheeks' seat. That may help Cheeks, because he will gain black Democratic voters and lose the white Republicans of Columbia County.

Because the new maps involve a court settlement, any changes to them would likely force the issue back before a three-judge federal panel.

That prompted some griping from lawmakers.

Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville, complained that the settlement map cut up his southeast Georgia district so that he would represent only half of Brunswick and half of Glynn County.

"You've gutted my city away from me," Kemp told Dunn. "I'm now representing half a city and half a county. It's awfully difficult to do."

Legislative leaders, U.S. Justice Department officials and plaintiff's lawyers began meeting with a federal mediator Monday in hopes of reaching an agreement on legislative redistricting in time to get it ratified by the General Assembly.

Atlanta attorney A. Lee Parks has been charging since 1993 that lawmakers illegally drew political boundaries based predominantly on race.

In the latest court fight, Parks, federal officials and ACLU lawyers were contesting legislative districts redrawn during a special session in 1995. That session was held to correct flaws Parks saw in House and Senate political maps drawn by lawmakers in 1992.

The Atlanta lawyer contends many black-majority districts are unconstitutional because they are racially gerrymandered.

Legislative candidates used the special session map, with minor changes, in last fall's elections. After the election, the special session boundaries officially became law.