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Monday, July 11, 2011 - 1:37pm

New Congressional District A Political Prize

Georgia will gain a new Congressional district this year. That’s because the state added 1.5 million residents in the last decade. State lawmakers will determine the 14th district’s boundaries at a special legislative session in August. They haven’t said where the new district will go but one area in north Georgia has an edge.

On Mundy Mill Road, ten miles outside of Gainesville, most of the national food chains have a presence. There’s a Taco Bell and next door a Dunkin’ Donuts. A Bank of America branch separates them from a Burger King and a KFC location.

The area has been swept up with change as Hall County and other areas in north Georgia have exploded with growth. Part of that change will be a new Congressional district that many think will have the Gainesville area as its center.

While suburban sprawl surrounds Gainesville, the Downtown still has the feel of a small Southern town. The menu at The Collegiate Grill on Main Street is not all that different from when it opened in 1947. But owner Jeff Worley says Hall County has changed a lot since he was a kid.

“Golly, it’s grown a lot. I mean, it’s grown a lot,” he said, while taking a break from the grill. “The commercial aspects have grown a lot. The larger restaurants have come into town. Back in those days, I remember there was only one movie theater that everyone went to and one or two good restaurants, you know.”

Hall is one of several north Georgia counties whose populations jumped 25 percent or more between 2000 and 2010.

Lawmakers are redrawing state and congressional district maps as part of the once-a-decade redistricting. They can put the new Congressional district anywhere in the state. But the state’s booming northern half will likely win the new seat because South Georgia has lost population.

Rep. David Ralston of Blue Ridge is the Speaker of the House.

“I think we have to look at where the most rapid growth and where the most substantial population growth has occurred, and identify as to whether there is a community of interest that needs representation,” he said.

And then there’s politics. Republicans are handling redistricting for the first time in the state’s history.

Tom Crawford, editor of the political news service, the Georgia Report, says Hall County has a good chance of being part of the district because it’s heavily Republican. And that’s not all.

“It’s also the home County of both Governor Nathan Deal and Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle,” Crawford said in an interview at the State Capitol, “and I’m sure both of them would have a personal interest in seeing their home county as the center of the brand-new house district.”

That’s because more political influence usually translates into more federal handouts for the area. The district could also be a glittering political prize for an up-and-coming state legislator, says University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock.

“If there’s an open seat for Congress, then that’s the kind of thing where a savvy politician will say, ‘This may be my best shot to go to D.C. I don’t have to take on an incumbent,’” Bullock said. “It’s kind of a jump-ball situation.”

Lawmakers need the district to include 692,000 people so that all the districts are equal in size. Crawford says they could reach the magic number if they form the new district by combining Hall, Forsyth, Cherokee and Bartow counties.

A 14th Congressional representative will bolster the state’s voice in Washington, D.C. In presidential elections, the state will gain an elector in the Electoral College. And with a larger population, Bullock says Georgia as a whole will get a bigger slice of federal funding allocations.

“This is something that states care a great deal about because of the potential of influence in Congress, the potential for influence in the Electoral College, as well as the funding allocations,” Bullock said. “These three elements are all key to whether your state is growing, or holding its own or falling behind.”

Back at the Collegiate Grill, Jeff Worley says he doesn’t follow politics as closely as he’d like to. But if Gainesville is part of the new congressional district, that’s fine by him.

“We’re all for positive change, if that’s what it ends up being,” he said as the lunch crowd thinned out.

Georgians should know the new district’s location after the special legislative session in August. But the election for the seat won’t be until the 2012 general election.