Originally created 05/30/99

Race an issue for districts



ATLANTA -- Despite this month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling and years of costly legal battles, Georgia lawmakers head into the upcoming redistricting battle knowing race again will play a central role when they begin carving up city, county, state and congressional voting districts.

Civil rights activists are working hard to make sure black Georgians are counted accurately during the 2000 census, which will be used to divvy up the state and nation's political booty.

"We have got to educate those who may not be aware of the importance of the census count," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. "We as an African-American community should make this our number one priority. Not only does it impact our districts, but it impacts our (federal) funding."

Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, former chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, sponsored a conference last week to make sure migrant farm workers and the state's Hispanic community are fully accounted for at census time as well.

"For the census and redistricting, if they're a warm body, they count, regardless of whether they can vote or not," noted Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, a member of the House Reapportionment Committee. "It bumps up our population so we can get that extra congressional seat and more federal money."

Even before the 2000 census begins, the general consensus is the state's population has grown enough to guarantee Georgia will gain at least one congressional seat, and possibly two.

That gives state lawmakers who have aspirations of moving up to Washington incentive to tinker with the congressional boundaries in their home counties.

State legislative districts will shift from rural and, in some cases, urban Georgia to the suburbs. North Atlanta counties like Gwinnett, Cobb and north Fulton will gain seats, and so might smaller suburban areas like Columbia County near Augusta.

Such suburban seats will come from rural Georgia and possibly from mid-size cities such as Augusta, Macon, and Albany that have grown at a slower pace than the rest of the state during the 1990s.

Although preliminary work is already under way, Georgians won't know until months after the 2000 census is completed who will represent them in the first decade of the 21st century. And until that count is made, they won't know if Georgia will have 12 congressmen, or 13.

Even then, if the pattern holds, the state will wind up having to defend those new districts in court against either civil rights groups or critics of seats drawn to elect minorities.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week made it harder for federal judges to invalidate election districts drawn by state legislatures just because they suspect race was the major factor in setting the boundaries.

The unanimous ruling in a North Carolina case could impact redistricting nationwide after the 2000 census by making judges be more certain of the role race played before overruling reapportionment plans.

Georgia was taken to court after reapportioning districts after the 1980 and 1990 censuses. The 1990s court battles lasted until 1997 and cost the state more than $2 million in legal and legislative expenses.

In the end, more black-majority districts were created. There were 33 black state lawmakers in 1991. There are 44 now.

The change in racial makeup of formerly mixed districts aided the Republicans even more. The number of GOP state lawmakers grew from 46 when redistricting started in 1991 to 100 today. Republicans went from having one of 10 congressional seats in Georgia to eight of 11.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who has taught about and studied redistricting for years, is expecting a repeat of the 1990s battles.

"The parties are going to line up along the same lines, with the white Democrats on one side and the black Democrats and white Republicans on the other side, and the goals will be the same," Dr. Bullock said.

The political equation is fairly simple: Whites in Georgia are more likely to vote Republican than blacks. When black Georgians are grouped together to create black-majority districts, it leaves the surrounding districts whiter, and thus more Republican.

Dr. Bullock argues black and Republican lawmakers may have enough votes to override any objections Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes has to redistricting plans.

However, that coalition may be difficult to hold together since Mr. Barnes has two black allies in key leadership posts -- Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta and House Majority Caucus Chairman Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus -- and won election last year with overwhelming African-American support.

Mr. Thurmond, who was heavily involved in the 1991 reapportionment as an Athens legislator, isn't expecting this go-around to be as racially charged.

"It (race) will always be an issue. It may always be a central issue," Mr. Thurmond said. "But what has happened since then is you've had two African-American congressmen re-elected in white-majority districts and two statewide (black) candidates elected. The political realities have changed.

"Race, like partisan politics, will always be part of it. I don't think it will be as pointed or harsh."

Mr. Harbin said because city, county, state and congressional voting lines will almost certainly be drawn based on the race of constituents, and the federal courts have not clearly defined how it can be used, Georgia will probably wind up in court again after the 2001 redistricting.

"The only thing I can promise you for sure after reapportionment is we are going to be sued," he said. "It's just more taxpayer money being spent on something that we wouldn't have this problem with if we had rules.

"We shouldn't be looking at race. We should be trying to put people in districts based on common interests."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.