Originally created 09/02/01

Legislators deliberate relocating

ATLANTA - From the time members of the General Assembly got their first glimpse of maps of their new districts, more than a few have had leaving on their minds.

Not leaving the Legislature. Leaving home.

Lawmakers who would be lumped together with other incumbents or saddled with less-supportive voters, mostly Republicans, planned to pack up and move to a better district.

"I've got my mobile home, and I'm ready to go," joked Sen. Rusty Paul, R-Atlanta, whose district would be home to another incumbent under a map signed into law by Gov. Roy Barnes last week.

But it might not be so easy.

Under Georgia law, legislators must live in a district for at least a year before running for office there. But by leaving the district they currently serve, they automatically lose their seat.

"If a current member of the General Assembly moves his permanent residence outside his district, the office will become vacant as a matter of law," state Attorney General Thurbert Baker wrote last week in an unofficial opinion.

Although the law has been around for years, it has come to a head during this summer's special sessions because aggressive map drawing by majority Democrats has put an unprecedented number of Republicans in danger of losing their seats if they don't look for friendlier pastures elsewhere.

That means unhappy legislators must move before November to be in place for next year's election - when the maps lawmakers are crafting during the redistricting sessions go into effect.

If they can't find neighborhoods where their current and future turf overlap, they're forced to decide whether seeking the new seat is worth giving up their current one.

Examples abound:

Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta, would be in a Democratic-leaning district with Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta.

Rep. Ralph Hudgens, R-Hull, would be in a district with Rep. Bob Smith, R-Watkinsville.

Sen. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, would go into a district with Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville.

Republicans argue the overlaps are no accident.

"That's one of the reasons the Democrats did it," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "They know they're disrupting incumbents - that was part of our whole anger at the process. It wasn't just the partisanship; it was the meanness."

But John Kirincich, the executive director of the state Democratic Party, said some Republican incumbents were placed in the same district as a consequence of drawing districts dominated by Democratic voters, not in a deliberate attempt to target those lawmakers.

"Districts are drawn where the people are, not necessarily where the representatives or senators are," he said.

There is a way out of the dilemma, at least for some incumbents who might find themselves in an unfriendly district.

Mrs. Burmeister, for example, is planning to move into an Augusta district now represented by Democratic House Speaker Pro Tempore Jack Connell. If she goes to an area inside the new district that overlaps with her current district, she can comply with the November deadline without vacating her seat.

It would be familiar turf for Mrs. Burmeister, considering that five of the eight precincts she now represents are being shifted into Mr. Connell's district.

"Every one of those precincts has apartment complexes or townhomes," she said. "That's what I'm looking at."

But there aren't such easy answers for all lawmakers.

In some cases, districts were altered so drastically that no common ground exists between a legislator's current district and the nearest friendly turf.

And because of the long legal process required to approve redistricting, some Republicans are afraid they won't have enough time to react.

Georgia is among a handful of states that must submit redistricting plans to the federal government - most likely the U.S. Justice Department - to ensure the plans don't hurt minority voting rights.

Whether the federal officials take their time or return the plans to Georgia for changes, the final maps might not be approved until after the first week in November.

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


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