Originally created 09/09/01

Panel studies district plans for final map



ATLANTA - Coastal Georgia, the state's midsection and the region surrounding Athens will be focal points when Democratic leaders in the General Assembly sit down this week to work out a new congressional map.

But politics, race and other nongeographic issues are likely to play a more important role in the outcome of a legislative special session now entering its fourth week.

A conference committee is expected to begin meeting as early as Tuesday to resolve differences between the congressional plans passed by the House and Senate last week. With Democrats in control of both chambers, all six committee members will be Democrats.

The legislature draws new congressional district lines every 10 years to reflect changes in population that show up in the census. Georgia is one of four states entitled to additional districts because of rapid growth during the past decade, increasing the number of U.S. House seats from 11 to 13.

While the two plans have major differences, Democratic leaders are united in their goal of electing at least six Democrats to Congress, up from three in the state's current delegation.

"The objective is the same," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "The only difference is the road we'll travel."

Complicating the picture is a third map that also is in play. The plan passed by the House was put forth by another Augusta Democrat - Rep. Ben Allen - over the objections of House leaders, who were pushing a map drawn by Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen.

As the conferees come to the table, Mr. Murphy's map looms as a strong competitor with the plan steered through the House by Mr. Allen and with the Senate map.

Mr. Allen, who hopes to take his map all the way to Congress, realizes he's still fighting an uphill battle against Democratic leaders. But he carries with him the weight of the coalition of Republicans and black Democrats that passed his plan last week.

"What I put on the floor was an ideal situation," he said. "But I know politics is the art of compromise. I'm willing to work with (Democratic leaders) on this as long as we do what's best for the Augusta region."

Win or lose, Mr. Allen will get a newly drawn Democratic-leaning Augusta-based district to run in. All three maps have that feature in common.

But the plans diverge in how they treat the coast, middle Georgia and the state's northeastern corner.

The Allen and Murphy maps leave coastal Georgia mostly intact, while the Senate plan splits the region between two districts that stretch inland as far as Macon and Valdosta.

"What Tybee Island has in common with Colquitt (County) I haven't figured out," Senate Republican leader Eric Johnson of Savannah complained Friday, summarizing a major GOP complaint that Democrats are ignoring geography in a quest to maximize their strength in Congress.

The speaker's map gives middle Georgia its own congressional district for the first time in decades, anchored by Macon. Both Mr. Allen's map and the Senate plan split the region among several other districts.

The Senate map separates Athens from most of its suburbs and places it in the Augusta-based district. The Murphy and Allen maps keep the region more intact.

But such regional concerns are likely to take a back seat at the conference table to politics and race, two factors that are closely linked because black voters tend to support Democrats.

Much of the debate over the competing maps has focused on which would create the most Democratic-leaning districts and which would form the most black-majority districts and "black-influence" districts, defined as having a substantial black voting-age population but less than 50 percent.

Legally, there's nothing to stop Democrats from drawing politically advantageous districts. But they are bound by federal law and previous court rulings not to design districts that would dilute black voting strength.

During Friday's Senate debate, Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, pitched the Senate map as the best on both counts.

Mr. Scott said it would create two black-majority districts and four black-influence districts. Six of the 13 districts could be expected to elect a Democrat, six lean Republican, and one would be a tossup, he said.

"This state is neither Democratic nor Republican. It is both," said Mr. Scott. "Yet, our (current) congressional delegation (eight Republicans and three Democrats) doesn't reflect that."

The speaker's map would form two black-majority districts and three black-influence districts.

Mr. Allen's map would create only one black-majority district and three black-influence districts. But he insists it would be just as strong politically for the Democrats, forming six Democratic-leaning districts.

With those statistics in mind, Mr. Walker predicted the congressional map that emerges from the conference committee will look more like the Senate map than either of the other two plans. He said the alliance of black Democrats and Republicans that cropped up in the House to pass the Allen map won't recur.

"Blacks and whites (Democrats) are together on the Senate side," he said. "They will come together on the House side."

But before that can happen, the conferees will have to agree on a map they can present to the full House and Senate.

Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, Gov. Roy Barnes' floor leader in the Senate, who has been on many such panels, said it's seldom an easy process.

"It's long, tedious and tiring," he said. "Tempers occasionally flare, but it's the nature of the beast."

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