If things go the way Republicans want, the biggest news coming out of the November ballot box will be the establishment of north Georgia as the state’s new power center.
House Speaker David Ralston, assured of re-election, resides in far north Blue Ridge. GOP nominee for governor Nathan Deal and Casey Cagle, seeking a second term as lieutenant governor, share a single geographic base: the city of Gainesville, on the banks of Lake Lanier.
The three most powerful men in the state Capitol would live within 50 miles of each other, all within the 9th Congressional District.
“It’s a big state to have everybody in one little corner,” admits Ruth Bruner, mayor of Gainesville.
Georgia has never had a governor and lieutenant governor hail from the same city, according to the Georgia Municipal Association. Bruner is torn at the prospect.
On one hand, she’s a supporter of Democrat Roy Barnes.
On the other, governors are famous for directing benefits toward their longtime neighbors — often at taxpayer expense. Joe Frank Harris guided a beer brewery to Cartersville. Zell Miller championed a $20 million playground— Brasstown Valley Resort — near his home of Young Harris.
Roy Barnes sent an amphitheater to Mableton. And Sonny Perdue is putting the finishing touches — despite the steepest downturn since the Great Depression — on a multimillion dollar horse show complex in his home of Houston County.
Republicans are as reluctant to discuss the topic as the mayor of Gainesville — but for other reasons.
Whether water, economic development or transportation, regional tension lies at the heart of nearly every problem that dogs Georgia.
With an election less than four weeks away, that tension isn’t an issue that Republicans want to hand to Barnes — who has devoted months of attention to south Georgia during his campaign for governor.
“I don’t get any push-back from that,” said Ralston, who in January succeeded Glenn Richardson of Hiram — on the edge of suburban Atlanta — as speaker.
First of all, there’s the state’s dire economic situation, Ralston said. “In this era of budget limitations and deficits, I’m not sure that the tangible benefits are going to be [there] for any governor to do. That overrides everything.”
Then there’s the Internet, the House speaker said. Special favors for the home folk — at least the big ones — have become too difficult to hide. “Can you imagine the blogging that would go on?” Ralston asked. “Zell Miller didn’t have to worry about blogging on Brasstown Valley. I think you can’t ignore that anymore.”
But neither can south Georgia ignore facts on the ground. The power shift toward north Georgia is about far more than a trio of Republicans and the accidental location of their homesteads.
This is the natural result of a century-long shift away from agricultural Georgia. North Georgia — that part of the state above Columbus, Macon and Augusta — accounted for 55 percent of the state’s population in 1960. That figure is now 73 percent, according to 2009 estimates.
Political boundaries for state House and Senate seats, and seats in Congress, will be redrawn when the General Assembly convenes next January — as happens after every U.S. census.
An increase in population will give Georgia one extra member of Congress — from a Republican district likely to be drawn northeast of Atlanta.
But a more significant political shift will occur within the state Legislature.
The continued population drain from south Georgia will force a shift of six House seats to the north, according to initial estimates. For the first time in state history, a majority of House seats would be from 28 counties surrounding Atlanta. In north Georgia.
This worries Georgians who carve out a living below the gnat line. And no issue has been more sensitive to Georgia’s population shift than water.
We’re less than two years away from a federal judge’s deadline to settle our water war with Alabama and Florida. A governor and lieutenant governor living on the shores of Lake Lanier would give bountiful representation to metro Atlanta, whose population depends on the water behind Buford Dam.
Downstream Georgia already feels short-changed. But there could be one bright spot in the November results.
In Washington, Republicans have been content to let U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson — one a resident of south Georgia, the other a native of suburban Atlanta — to handle most of the negotiations on water.
In the House, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, has acted as ramrod. But should that chamber shift to Republican control in November, a Georgia Republican would have to be named lead negotiator in the House.
The 9th District of Tom Graves, the Republican elected to replace Deal, includes most of Lake Lanier. But Graves was only elected in May and lacks seniority. A replacement for retiring U.S. Rep. John Linder of Gwinnett County, whose district also touches Lanier, has yet to be chosen.
More than likely, the House water war portfolio would fall to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County, whose 3rd District includes much of the Chattahoochee River between metro Atlanta and Columbus.
It’s not all the clout that downstream Georgia could desire. But a little is always better than none.