Originally created 04/16/04

17 counties will lose incumbents



ATLANTA - An unexpected collision of retiring state lawmakers and new district boundaries has left a massive question mark hanging over the future political power of southeast Georgia.

Some of the region's most powerful politicians have announced they won't seek re-election this fall - including Sens. Peg Blitch, D-Homerville, and Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, along with Rep. Mike Boggs, D-Waycross.

"It was time for me to go," said Ms. Blitch, who has served in the Legislature for 14 years. "I have two grandchildren, and I have missed all but one birthday party."

At the same time, a new set of legislative maps drawn by a federal court has placed Brantley, Camden, Charlton, Glynn and McIntosh counties into a new district where no incumbent senator lives.

The result is that a 17-county swath of southern Georgia, stretching from the coastal barrier islands to the Interstate 75 corridor, will be represented by freshmen lawmakers in the state Senate next year.

Whether this situation is good or bad for the region's residents depends on whom you ask and which political party voters favor this fall.

"We do need a little bit of new blood, but sometimes new blood doesn't see the whole perspective of what went on before," said Fred Griffin, the owner of Griffin Bike & Mower in Brunswick.

Mr. Griffin said he plans to scrutinize whomever runs for election in his district to make sure they have the best interest of coastal Georgia in mind.

"I really don't do political parties," he said. "I do the person who is going to be right for the job, whether it's Democrat, Republican or whatever."

William Boone, a political scientist professor at Clark Atlanta University, said new lawmakers are often last on the list when it comes to landing state money for local construction projects, known in political terms as "pork-barrel" spending.

"You have to build that clout," Mr. Boone said.

"The area will have to go through a period of trying to re-establish itself on trying to get on the pork barrel. (The region) is going to feel it. They're going to suffer."

House Minority Whip Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said voters could see tremendous benefits if they elect Republicans to fill the empty posts.

The GOP holds a majority in the Senate, and if Republicans can maintain their dominance in the chamber after elections, Mr. Keen says, newly elected Republicans stand to profit.

"It actually means more being in the majority than (having) seniority," said Mr. Keen, whose party hopes to win a majority in the House, where Democrats reign 107-72. "When you are on the majority side, you've got a little more influence on the committee assignments you'll receive."

Yet the big question floating around the Capitol is which party stands to benefit from the new political maps issued in March by a three-judge federal panel.

With all 236 lawmaker posts up for grabs this fall, both parties are hoping they'll end up on top.

The Senate races are expected to be extremely tense.

Democrats won a 30-26 majority in the chamber after the 2002 election, but the unanticipated election of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue persuaded four Democrats to switch parties.

While the new districts have yet to be used in an election, voting data show that certain districts, including Senate districts 3 and 8, are likely to be more partisan than others.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or brian.basinger@morris.com.