ATLANTA - For months, Georgia Republicans have been eagerly anticipating congressional and legislative redistricting - the redrawing of political boundaries each decade after the census.
The release of the 2000 census figures last month has done nothing to diminish their enthusiasm.
The numbers show that the largest districts - those that experienced the most population growth during the 1990s - are in areas where Republicans now dominate, primarily the Atlanta suburbs.
On the other hand, the smallest districts - those the General Assembly will need to build up during redistricting - are held by Democrats.
"It's a nice comfort zone to have," said Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, who has nearly 109,000 constituents in his House district in northern Fulton County, making it the largest in the state.
"I'm right in the middle of it and can pretty much pick and choose the district I want."
Republican lawmakers will have to give up huge numbers of voters - mostly Republicans - to newly formed districts in order to meet the targets set for this redistricting cycle.
The population of House districts must be within 5 percent of 45,500, while Senate districts must come within the same range of 146,000.
"Clearly, there will be some areas where it doesn't matter how you cut it, Republicans are going to come up with new seats," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
The redistricting process kicks off with a series of public hearings throughout the state, starting April 17 in Watkinsville and running through May 23 in Dahlonega. Other sessions will take place in Atlanta, Augusta, Perry, Brunswick and Valdosta.
The hearings probably will be dominated by pleas from local officials and concerned residents for lawmakers not to draw district lines that divide neighbor from neighbor, said Rep. Bob Hanner, a member of the House Legislative & Congressional Reapportionment Committee and the panel's former chairman.
"The main thing we'll see is (arguments for) keeping our cities, counties and precincts together," said Mr. Hanner, D-Parrott. "People are concerned about communities of interest in congressional (redistricting)."
The House and Senate reapportionment committees will begin meeting after the hearing to start shaping redistricting plans to present to the full legislature during a special session expected in August.
Even though congressional districts must be drawn within just 1 percent of their target populations of about 630,000, the congressional process promises to be easier than redrawing legislative district lines, Dr. Bullock said. That's because strong population growth during the past decade will entitle Georgia to two more U.S. House seats, bringing the total to 13, he said.
Dr. Bullock said the added flexibility those seats will give lawmakers should allow the congressmen representing south Georgia to hold onto enough of their current districts to mount strong re-election bids.
But with the General Assembly restricted to working with the same number of legislative districts - 56 in the Senate and 180 in the House - the predominantly rural region south of the Gnat Line is expected to lose representation as districts move northward to reflect the redistribution of Georgia's population.
The shift could squeeze out two south Georgia senators and as many as eight House members, Dr. Bullock said.
"The tough part for us on the committee will be to decide between two people on occasion," Mr. Burkhalter said. "It's the toughest thing that we do."
Georgia Republican Chairman Chuck Clay said the numbers dictate that the GOP is bound to pick up both of the Senate seats south Georgia loses and could gain at least four additional House seats. Such gains would put Republicans on their way to capturing a majority in at least one of the two legislative chambers.
"They've got to draw lines where there's people," Mr. Clay said. "That has to benefit us."
But Democrats remain in control of the General Assembly, which will give them the power to exploit inroads they have begun to make in metro Atlanta's inner suburbs. In the past two elections, Democrats have picked up House seats in parts of Gwinnett and Cobb counties that have seen an influx of Hispanic immigrants, who tend to vote Democratic.
"Right at the margins as you go from older to newer suburbs, there may be some opportunities to create some districts which, over the next decade, will become increasingly Democratic," Dr. Bullock said.
State Democratic Party Chairman David Worley argued that even fast-growing suburban neighborhoods that appear to be solidly Republican won't necessarily remain that way. Not all of the new residents will be in tune with the Georgia GOP's conservative philosophies on social issues, he explained.
"There are a lot of people who have moved here from New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio," he said. "They get here and realize this is not the Republican Party of their fathers.
"Over several election cycles, Republicans from other states are finding out they're not interested in what Republicans here are consumed with."
At first blush, the upcoming redistricting process would appear to threaten the level of minority representation in the General Assembly. All five of the smallest Senate districts and four of the five smallest House districts have lopsided black majorities that have elected black lawmakers to represent them.
But in its search for new voters to build up those primarily urban districts to meet the targets, the legislature won't be given free rein to dilute black voting strength.
Georgia is among 16 states that must submit their redistricting plans to the U.S. Justice Department, which will frown on any maps likely to reduce the number of black lawmakers.
"If urban areas lose seats, it probably won't be minority seats," Dr. Bullock said.
Here is a schedule of public hearings being held in April and May by the Georgia General Assembly's joint legislative reapportionment committee:
Tuesday, April 17: 7 p.m., Oconee Civic Center, Watkinsville
Wednesday, April 18: 2 p.m., Capitol Education Center, Atlanta
Wednesday, April 25: 7 p.m., Augusta Technical College, Augusta
Monday, April 30: 2:30 p.m., Agricenter, Perry
Tuesday, May 10: 7 p.m., Coastal Georgia Community College, Brunswick
Tuesday, May 15: 3 p.m., Valdosta-Lowndes Conference Center, Valdosta
Wednesday, May 23: 7 p.m., North Georgia College, Dahlonega
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.
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