Originally created 07/30/01

Redistricting guru wins lawmaker respect



ATLANTA - A look back through the General Assembly's annual directories shows a lot of the names have changed among the lawmakers who have been in charge of redrawing Georgia's congressional and legislative district lines.

The common denominator from all of those sessions has been the key staff member advising those ever-changing committees, Linda Meggers, who has become a fixture as the director of the Legislative Redistricting Office.

Among the 24 members of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, only four were there a decade ago for the redistricting that came after the 1990 census, and only two were on hand for the task back in 1981.

Only five of the 25 lawmakers serving on the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee were on the panel in 1991, and there's just one left from 1981.

"When I was first elected in 1978 and was put on the reapportionment committee, she was there," said Rep. Tommy Smith, the chairman of the House committee and the lone holdover from the chamber's 1981 redistricting panel. "She was just a young girl back then."

Ms. Meggers, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has been in her job long enough to win not only the confidence of Georgia politicians but to gain a national reputation.

"Linda Meggers probably borders on legendary in redistricting circles. She has so much experience and knowledge," said Tim Storey, an expert on redistricting with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"She's not a lawyer, but she understands the legal issues as well as any lawyer. She's not a computer scientist, but she knows the technology as well as anybody."

Mr. Smith, D-Alma, said Ms. Meggers brings to her job an unusual combination of technical expertise and political savvy.

"She's a genius with the technical process, but also can tell you right off whether the Legislature would agree or not (with a proposed redistricting map)," he said. "That is a rare find."

Under normal circumstances, congressional and legislative redistricting takes place only every 10 years. But Ms. Meggers' office also had to gear up in 1995 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the General Assembly's 1991 congressional map unconstitutional.

Besides that unexpected assignment, her office handles municipal redistricting and maps related to city and county annexations. It's enough to keep Ms. Meggers and a small staff working at the Capitol full time, through a contract between the state and the University of Georgia's Vinson Institute of Government.

Standing in the hallway outside her office, it's easy to see the session's hundreds of mini-stories playing out.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Greg Morris, a two-term Democrat from Vidalia, walked into the office, followed by Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, the chairman of the powerful Appropriations committee.

The two represent neighboring districts in south Georgia, where population growth around Atlanta means there will be fewer seats.

With neighbors such as Mr. Coleman and Mr. Smith, less tenured representatives such as Mr. Morris - Democrats and Republicans alike - will be fighting for their political lives.

Moments later, Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, arrived.

At least one map currently circulating would have Ms. Thomas' district - which contains about 58 percent minorities - taking in the towns of Pooler and Bloomingdale, two predominantly white suburbs of Savannah.

Two years ago, Ms. Thomas won election to her seat by less than 2 percent of the vote.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox said Ms. Meggers also was instrumental in making sure Georgia received full credit from the U.S. Census Bureau last year for its strong population growth during the 1990s. As a result of the 2000 count, the state will gain political clout in the form of 12th and 13th congressional districts to be added after the 2002 elections.

"The state of Georgia never will be able to replace her," Ms. Cox said . "I hope she's planning on working another 50 years."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.