Ten years later, what went around, came around.
Last week, our Republican-led Legislature plunged into the ruthless process known as redistricting.
Constitutionally, it is an occasion to pay homage to the concept of one person, one vote. In reality, redistricting is the irresistible opportunity for the ruling forces of the Capitol to redraw the state’s political boundaries — with the object of securing their own power for the next decade.
Congressional lines will be tackled this week. U.S. Rep. John Barrow, the Democrat from Savannah, is advised to reserve a moving van — Republicans are almost sure to force him out of his district, again.
But the true blueprint for power in Georgia was largely settled on Thursday, when House and Senate Republicans passed separate district maps — intended to give their party super-majorities in each chamber.
In the House, white Democrats were paired with black Democrats in heavily African-American districts, which the minority party condemned as an attempt to re-segregate Georgia political life. In depopulated South Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s old state Senate district — heavy with minorities and history — was erased from existence.
But from the beginning, Republicans had this message waiting to counter any Democratic whining: “You deserved worse.”
Definitely not by coincidence, Thursday’s debates on the maps opened in each chamber with a history lesson written by the victors. In 2001, Democrats still ruled Georgia, but Republicans — for the first time — were threatening. Led by Gov. Roy Barnes, Democrats produced a series of maps that stretched the bounds of credulity, as federal courts would later rule.
“They went overboard. They were just messing with incumbents,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.
Ten years later, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, flashed some of the Democratic handiwork on a pair of wide screens in the Senate chamber. District after district snaked across the state in narrow, twisted paths.
A giggle broke out when Seabaugh unveiled Senate District 51, housing a GOP incumbent, which Democrats had draped across the roof of Georgia like a giant pair of elephant ears — several counties on each lobe. The land bridge that connected the east side with the west was at one point only two football fields wide. (It took a reporter eight hours to make the convoluted 199-mile trek from one end to the other.)
Democrats tried to “systematically eliminate Republicans” from the Legislature, Seabaugh charged. In the House, 18 Republicans were forced out of their districts, and out of the Legislature. In the Senate, four Republicans were ousted after the 2002 elections, but ironically, the chamber still ended up in GOP hands.
After last week’s debate, Seabaugh was asked if Republicans conceived of their 2011 maps as a vehicle for revenge. He said no. In the GOP plan, only one senator — Democrat George Hooks of Americus, holding the same seat Carter once occupied — would be forced out.
“We didn’t pair a bunch of Democrats,” he said. “If anybody would go look at the Atlanta metro area, it would have been so easy, and it would have been justifiable.”
Did the Republican history seminar shame Democrats into submission? Hardly. “A hundred years ago, you used to take away the vote with a whip and a noose,” thundered state Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta. “Today you take it away with computers and hard drives and other electronic equipment. It wasn’t right then, and it wasn’t right now.”
But Fort and nearly every Democrat who challenged the GOP maps, in both the House and Senate, were forced to give an awkward acknowledgment of the Democratic excess of 2001, and deny any connection to it.
Which certainly can take the emotional starch out of a protest.
There is, of course, the question of how much the game of redistricting has actually changed in the last 10 years. At a Senate committee meeting, William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, complimented Republican senators for drawing a map with compact and contiguous districts, one that respected county lines and other geographic boundaries, and met the Voting Rights Act standard of one person, one vote.
The House map, Perry would say later, comes up short by splitting too many counties among several districts.
Beyond that, Perry remains a skeptic. “It got a little nauseating hearing the comparison to 10 years ago,” he said. “As far as transparency, it’s not much better than it was.” In his judgment, it is the difference between a closed door, and one cracked open, with the chain still secured.
Yes, Republicans made their maps public before a vote. But on a Friday afternoon, before a session that began the next Monday. Important information was withheld, such as what incumbents lived in which renumbered districts. Republicans made many claims about the superiority of their maps over the ones drawn in 2001, but refused to provide the vital population data that backed up those claims.
Democrats were refused access to the $425-an-hour law firm hired with taxpayer funds to help build the maps. Just as Republicans were denied the same help in 2001.
Bottom line: In 2001 and 2011, after the leaders of the ruling party introduced their outlines of power, not a single line was changed by the protests of the opposition, or the complaints of the public.
There is more similarity. In the four decades since the passage of the Voter Rights Act, not a single redistricting map passed by the Legislature has escaped a federal court fight. And just as in 2001, the maps of 2011 are headed the same way.
In the meantime, sit back and wait for the payback that 2021 will bring.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider