Originally created 03/17/04

New map forces incumbent fights



ATLANTA - Long before federal judges tossed out the legislative district boundaries last month, members of the House Republican Caucus held a somber meeting to pledge their mutual support for whatever the court handed them.

All 71 members signed a document committing their "lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor" to the cause of remaking the district lines, borrowing their script from the country's founding fathers.

"We knew that we were all going to have to stick together, and we knew that some of us weren't coming back," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, the House Republican leader. "It's kind of like going into battle."

Indeed, at least 33 members of the House won't be coming back because they are now facing a House colleague for re-election this year and only one can win per district. Across the Capitol, 18 Senators landed in districts with fellow incumbents. Three House districts ended up with three incumbents.

Some will retire, such as Rep. Barbara Bunn, R-Conyers, who announced Tuesday she's not going to run again. Others have already announced a try for higher office, including Mr. Westmoreland, who is among the handful seeking seats in Congress. A few more will likely consider higher office now that their legislative seats are no longer safe - probably adding at least one veteran Democrat to the race for the U.S. Senate.

Members of both parties are looking for any possibility to improve their situation, but opportunities are few now.

The three-judge panel that threw out the previous maps last month gave the General Assembly until March 1 to pass new versions to their own liking for the House and Senate districts. When that didn't happen, the court empowered a college professor who's an expert on redistricting to come up with maps that were unveiled Monday.

Lawyers for both parties have until Friday to file arguments with the judges in an attempt to correct any technical flaws in the maps.

Sen. Eric Johnson, the Senate president pro tempore and one of the Republican voters who filed the legal challenge against the old maps, said he will ask the court to make some adjustments, such as small changes that could remove incumbents paired together if there is an open district nearby.

"We're happy with it as it is, but disappointed with the pairings," the Savannah lawmaker said.

Next week, lawyers for Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, will address the judges in a brief hearing on how this fall's presidential elections will mesh with the new maps. Ms. Cox, who is the state's chief of elections, wants to delay the beginning of the candidate-qualification period from April 26 to April 29, but keep the end of the period at April 30. She also wants to shorten the period for requesting absentee ballots from 45 days to 21, the window used for municipal elections, said Chris Riggall, Ms. Cox's spokesman.

The possibility of making major changes in court, or of passing maps in the Legislature now, seem very remote.

"We can't blame anybody but ourselves," said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez.

So on Tuesday, members of both parties were making optimistic comments to reporters about their chances with the court's maps.

The outcome has Republican operatives drooling.

"It's just musical chairs for the Democrats, and suddenly they have two or three people for each chair," said Mark Rountree, whose company, Landmark Communications, helps develop strategy for GOP campaigns.

"There are 108 Democrats in the House right now, and 18 of them are there for the last time this week."

Mr. Rountree said it is too early for either party to claim it would win a majority of the 180 House seats up for grabs this fall.

"I don't think anybody has the numbers yet to know what's going to happen," he said.

Mr. Rountree said history shows Republicans stand to gain seats because of the location of the new districts, and the fact that President Bush is up for re-election this fall.