Originally created 08/11/01

District map passes state Senate

ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate narrowly approved a new map of its 56 districts Friday after 4 1/2 hours of emotional, partisan bickering.

Immediately afterward, Republican leaders said they would keep fighting in court. But throughout the debate, Democrats insisted the map was fair and no more contorted for partisan purposes than Republican versions would be if the GOP were in power.

The map now goes to the House, which customarily rubber-stamps Senate maps during the once-a-decade legislative redistricting after each census. The plan also is certain to get Gov. Roy Barnes' signature, because he had a hand in crafting it.

The U.S. Department of Justice must review it for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which outlaws the weakening of minority voting power.

Members of the two parties disagreed on whether the plan violates the act.

Republicans said the new plan would reduce the percentage of black adults in nearly all of the current majority-black districts. Democratic leader Charles Walker of Augusta was unmoved.

"Don't patronize me with this discussion about minority representation," he said. "You're only concerned about furthering political power" by removing blacks from districts that would then lean toward Republicans.

Both sides agreed on the map's political nature.

Drawn with the aid of out-of-state political strategists and reams of voting data, the map would pit six legislators against one another and move two south Georgia Republicans' districts to Democratic-leaning areas in metro Atlanta.

In the process, it would split 87 counties and even 189 precincts.

"Georgia has been sliced and diced like a coed in a Halloween movie," said Senate Republican leader Eric Johnson of Savannah.

He and two other GOP senators openly cried during their turns speaking. They knew that if they could just change a few Democrats' minds, they said, the plan would fail.

Two Democrats, Sens. Regina Thomas of Savannah and Dan Lee of LaGrange, announced early in the debate their intentions to vote against the plan. Mr. Lee objected to the division of his home county, and Ms. Thomas' district would see its voting-age black population drop below 50 percent.

"I have to stand on conviction. I have to stand on principle," Ms. Thomas said, adding that she wasn't voting to help the Republicans. "My vote will be for the people of Chatham County."

The day before, Sens. Peg Blitch of Homerville and Don Cheeks of Augusta also broke ranks with fellow Democrats to vote against the plan in committee. Their no votes would have doomed it Friday, but Mr. Cheeks didn't vote at all, and Ms. Blitch voted for it.

"I had to study it to make sure nothing is wrong with my district," Ms. Blitch said. "That's why I didn't vote for it (Thursday). I wanted more time."

Many legislators are dreading the impact of the map on their districts, especially the splintering of local governments. Even some who voted for it bemoaned privately that they would have to spend more money traveling across larger areas in south Georgia districts and meeting with representatives of two or three times as many school boards, commissions and development authorities.

Districts touching parts of a dozen counties is common in the map, and at least one district reportedly would include 51 municipalities.

Republicans intend to challenge that disjointed aspect of the map in court, along with what they call the dilution of voting strength of blacks and Hispanics. Much of the debate on the floor was geared toward setting up that lawsuit by trying to elicit admissions from Democrats.

"There were some definite legal openings that they gave us today," said Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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