New maps could be bad for Democrats

By Billy Corriher

A legislative redistricting map drawn for a federal court could give Republicans control of the state House after more than 130 years of Democrat rule, but also puts top leaders of the new majority-Republican Senate in jeopardy.

The maps, which were made public on Monday, guarantee House Democrats only 88 "safe" seats ? three votes short of majority control ? according to a rushed analysis by Democratic staffers. In the House, Democrats now hold a 108-71 edge with one independent who usually votes Republican.

Though the House redistricting committee only passed a new map about an hour before the court's maps were released, House Democrats said there is still a possibility that the courts could let lawmakers draw their own maps.

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, said the House isn't abandoning its map, even though it has been two weeks since the court's March 1 deadline for new maps. The Senate quickly voted on new maps after the judicial panel ruled that the current Democratic-drawn maps violated the "one person, one vote" principle because of population disparities in the districts.

"The House members will likely go ahead and vote on the map that we've been holding," Buckner said.

If the Democrats want to pass the maps, they must do so quickly. Candidates must qualify between April 26 and April 30 for the July 20 election, leaving little time for the Department of Justice to approve a new redistricting plan drawn by the Legislature, as it is required to do under the Voting Rights Act. Maps drawn by a federal court do not have to be approved by the Department of Justice.

Buckner said the court's map also do not take "communities of interest" into account, meaning the maps do not try to group related areas together.

"The judges' maps haven't done a better job (on grouping together communities of interest) than any other map," she said.

The maps also do not include multi-member districts like the local district represented by Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, and Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City.

The court did not consider the placement of incumbents while making the maps, and several incumbents, including Dodson and Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, are in the same districts. Rep. Darryl Jordan, D-Riverdale, and Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park, would be in the same district, but Hill is not running for reelection.

The Senate map, though it appears to leave Republicans with enough safe seats to retain control, would force some of the GOP's top leaders to run against each other.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, would be in a district with Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville. The governor's floor leader, Sen. Dan Lee, R-LaGrange, would be in a district with Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland.

Sen. Mike Crotts, D-Conyers, said the Republicans would talk with their legal staff about any legal avenues to appeal the maps.

"There are a lot of senators on both sides of the aisle who have some concerns about the maps," he said. Crotts is leaving his seat to seek election to the U.S. Senate.

The House map also throws high-powered Democrats together. Tossed into a single district under the special master's plan are Rep. Tom Buck, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Calvin Smyre, chairman of the calendar-setting Rules Committee, and Carolyn Hugley, the redistricting chairman.

House Republicans were jubilant.

"I think there's definitely going to be a shift of power," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg. "There's a lot of people that's not coming back."