Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
GOP lawmakers stake out wins in Atlanta suburbs as state-level redistricting wraps
New district maps for both chambers of Georgia’s Legislature await Gov. Brian Kemp’s pen after the House gave its approval to the Senate’s mapping plan 96-70 Monday, largely along party lines.
Lawmakers from both parties have honed their arguments since the once-a-decade special session began Nov. 3, and Monday’s debate on the House floor struck familiar tones, with Democrats charging the Republicans who drew the maps with protecting their political advantages and ignoring the rapid growth in Georgia’s minority population.
“Over the last 10 years, Georgia’s population grew by 1 million people, and that growth is exclusively comprised of people of color,” said Atlanta Democratic Rep. Bee Nguyen, who is running for secretary of state. “This map really fails to reflect that growth. It does not increase the total number of majority-minority districts, and it turns Senate District 48 into a majority white district.”
Senate District 48, currently represented by Johns Creek Sen. Michelle Au, is set to radically transform its partisan and racial makeup under the latest maps. According to data from the City University of New York’s Redistricting and You and the New York Times, Au’s district will go from 36.8% white and 59.2% Democratic to 50.9% white and 51.6% Republican. Au is Georgia’s only Asian-American woman senator.
“This is what we mean when we talk about allowing the people to elect the representative of their choice so that their voices will be heard,” Nguyen said. “It means when six Asian women are brutally murdered in our state, we know there will be at least one woman on the Senate side, who can speak about cultural barriers, who can speak about language barriers and who can speak about the fears that plague the Asian-American community.”
Democrats also balked at changes to Henry County’s districts they said would benefit Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican. Strickland defeated Democrat Kelly Rose last November by fewer than 2,000 votes out of more than 100,000. A slim majority of Strickland’s current district — 50.7% — voted for Joe Biden in that election, but under the new map, just over 60% of his district voted for Donald Trump.
Suwanee Rep. Bonnie Rich, who chairs the House Redistricting and Reapportionment Committee, echoed statements she made throughout the special session Monday, arguing that the process incorporated public comment and was fair to all Georgians, including minorities.
“The Voting Rights Act protects communities and voters,” Rich said. "It protects those communities, it ensures that communities have the ability to elect a candidate of their choice."
“It doesn’t guarantee me my seat, and it doesn’t guarantee you your seat or any senator their seat,” she added. “The maps that the Senate has drawn comply with the Voting Rights Act. I know this because we have worked on this process together. We have engaged legal counsel, who are experts in this field. We are confident that the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act.”
According to data from the Office of Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment and Redistricting and You, Rich’s district will go from casting 51.6% of its votes for Biden in 2020 to 60.4% Trump.
The nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the Senate an F for its redistricting plan, largely faulting for excessive partisanship. The researchers found there is only one competitive district in the plan, the one now represented by Au.
Republicans now hold a 34-22 advantage in the Senate, and though Au’s seat is at risk, Democrats could expand their minority to 23 with the inclusion of two new Democratic-leaning districts in Gwinnett and Fulton — though Princeton finds an optimal map would feature about 26 districts drawn to favor Democratic senators.
The House’s plan, which passed the Senate Friday, got an overall B from Princeton but received an F in the university’s competitiveness rating. The House map pairs four sets of incumbents who are not seeking reelection: Snellville Democratic Reps. Rebecca Mitchell and Shelly Hutchinson, Republican Reps. Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas and James Burchett of Waycross; Republican Reps. Danny Mathis of Cochran and Robert Pruitt of Eastman; and Republican Rep. Gerald Greene of Cuthbert and Democratic Rep. Winifred Dukes of Albany.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 103-77 in the House, and their plan would likely help to protect that majority over the next few elections by infusing Republican incumbents in the north metro Atlanta area with new reliably conservative voters, Redistricting and You data shows.
- Acworth Republican Rep. Ed Setzler’s district is set to go from 52.3% Biden to 54% Trump by moving the boundary into Cherokee County. In 2020, Setzler slightly edged out Democrat Kyle Rinaudo with 50.5% to Rinaudo’s 49.5%.
- Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper’s east Cobb district is set to change from 55.6% Biden to 52.1% Trump by moving the eastern boundary into the district of fellow Cobb Republican Rep. Matt Dollar, who has announced he is not seeking reelection. In 2020, Cooper narrowly defeated Democrat Luisa Wakeman 50.8% to 49.2%.
- Marietta Republican Don Parsons’ district is poised to change from 50.5% Biden to 54.1% Trump by expanding into Cherokee County. In 2020, Parsons defeated Democrat Connie DiCicco 51.8% to 48.2%.
- Marietta Rep. Devan Seabaugh, who won a special election earlier this year to replace the retired Rep. Bert Reeves, is set to see his district go from 51.8% Trump to 58.4% Trump.
- Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones’ Alpharetta district is set to go from 53.4% Trump to 57% Trump by spreading into Cherokee County. In 2020, Jones defeated Democrat Anthia Owens 60.8% to 39.2%.
- Alpharetta Republican Rep. Chuck Martin’s district will go from 52.8% Biden to 52% Trump by expanding west to Roswell. In 2020, Martin defeated Democrat Jason Hayes 52.78% to 47.2%.
By bolstering Republicans like these in areas that are trending more Democratic, the party is hoping to keep its advantage in future elections, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.
“People like Sharon Cooper, Ed Setzler, they haven’t had a whole lot of margin of comfort,” he said. “So if they were to have any hopes of staying around for the next decade, they need to find some Republican voters, and so what these proposals are doing is moving north, and the further north you go in Georgia, the redder it gets, you’re able to pick up Republican voters.
“And the fact that then some of them got paired, what that means is that Republicans have come to the conclusion I was thinking they would have to come to, and that is, ‘Sorry, but there’s not room in the lifeboat for everybody,’” he added.
Once the maps receive Kemp’s signature, they will represent a big win for the Georgia GOP, though it’s likely too early to say whether they will be able to hold on to the new districts through the next redistricting in 2030, Bullock said.
“You could certainly be pretty confident saying they hold for 2022, 2024, maybe 2026, but by then, we get to 2028 and 2030, that’s when it may get very, very difficult,” he said. “If the same kind of changes that we’ve witnessed during the 2010 decade continue into this decade, then what we’ll see is Democrats moving farther and farther out from the city limits of Atlanta, and as they do so, some of these districts are going to flip and become marginal again.”
Some Republican lawmakers are set to lose Trump voters, most notably Sharpsburg Rep. Philip Singleton, who has frequently sparred with House Speaker David Ralston, is set to watch his district go from 72.4% Trump to 66.6% Biden.
Ralston said at a press conference last week that Singleton’s district had to be drawn the way it was to comply with the Voting Rights Act and denied any political payback was involved.
But redistricting is always political, and the party in power is essentially expected to use that power to benefit its members — throughout the hearings, Republicans have relished the opportunity to remind Democrats of the last time they drew the maps in 2001, when their results were widely panned as egregious gerrymanders. The public reaction to that political hardball is considered to be a contributing factor to the Democrats losing their long stronghold on the governor’s office and the Legislature.
Democrats are threatening to sue over the Republicans’ mapmaking, with a Voting Rights Act challenge as the most likely avenue.
“A yes vote on this map is a vote to discard representative government,” said South Fulton Democratic Rep. Debra Bazemore before the House’s vote on the Senate map. “A yes vote on this map is a vote to disenfranchise millions of Georgia voters. A yes vote on this map is an invitation to costly legal challenges that will be incurred to defend an unconstitutional map.”
Redistricting is also a notoriously fraught process that can pit colleagues against one another and set lawmakers up for tough reelection battles. The hurt feelings led longtime state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat, to strike an empathetic note last week when addressing the House Republicans’ point person on redistricting ahead of the vote.
“It is a tough job, a job where nobody’s going to be happy and she’s going to have to make new friends after all of this is over,” Hugley said.
But the rising tensions under the Gold Dome — which intensified after a GOP lawmaker quietly filed bills that would make major changes to the Gwinnett County Commission and Board of Education — prompted veteran state Sen. Jeff Mullis to urge his colleagues not to let things become too personal.
“This is a political process,” the Chickamauga Republican said Monday. "Sometimes it goes our way. Sometimes it doesn’t. But regardless of that, we need to keep our comments friendlier — I mean on either side. We don’t need to let it go the wrong way. We’re colleagues together. We’re going to love each other for the rest of our lives."
Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.