Redistricting Whiz Remaps Georgia

Posted March 7, 2005 at 6:28pm

At first glance, Bryan Tyson doesn’t appear to stand out from any other young, ambitious Congressional staffer who has just completed his second month on the job.

But nearly two weeks ago, as the 23-year-old legislative assistant to freshman Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) toiled late into the night on a Dell laptop at his parents’ house outside Atlanta, he experienced a humbling moment that few Capitol Hill staffers could ever identify with — at any age.

It was then, after he’d left the cramped state Capitol conference room where he worked as the House and Senate redistricting chairmen and other GOP lawmakers hovered nearby, that Tyson put the final touches on Georgia’s newly proposed Congressional map. And after he finished zeroing out the population deviation of all 13 districts, he paused to take in the magnitude of his work.

“I kind of sat back and realized this may be the last map I draw until the next decade,” Tyson recalled in an interview last week. “But also at the same time thinking this is a map that will affect the lives of 9 million Georgians.”

As Georgia Republicans, led by Westmoreland, have pushed forward with a rare mid-decade redrawing of Congressional boundaries, Tyson has played perhaps the most pivotal behind-the-scenes role in their effort — that of mapmaker, Voting Rights law expert and, as Westmoreland puts it, “rock star.”

“It’s an amazing thing,” Tyson said. “I just sit back and wonder what in the world am I doing, doing this?”

It is a fair question. How exactly did this youthful aide — who was primarily homeschooled, skipped college and completed a law degree online just two weeks ago — come to be Georgia Republicans’ go-to expert on drawing maps?

All by accident, or fate, Tyson insists.

In January 2001, when a then-19-year-old Tyson went to work as a legislative aide for then-state House Minority Leader Westmoreland, he didn’t even know that the Legislature was responsible for redistricting.

After a few months on the job, Tyson was asked by Westmoreland to take a training course on Maptitude — computer mapping software used by redistricters in Georgia and across the country. There he learned the logistics of drawing a plan and then later the legal implications of map-making.

He put that knowledge to use later that year when the state Legislature — then dominated by Democrats — met for a special redistricting session.

Although Republicans were largely shut out of the process, for the first time they put forth alternative maps that could be used in the event Democrats deadlocked and needed to compromise on new lines. Tyson, using the Maptitude software Republicans purchased for redistricting, drew the GOP version of the state House and Senate maps.

The GOP plans never saw daylight and Democrats, seeking to make partisan gains, eventually pushed through awkwardly drawn maps, like the one Georgia GOPers are now hoping to overturn.

The state’s legislative maps have since been overturned in federal court and were redrawn in February 2004. In the same case, Georgia’s Congressional map was upheld. Tyson testified for two hours on behalf of the Republican plaintiffs in the case, who were seeking to have the Democratic-drawn maps thrown out.

Charles Bullock, a professor at the University of Georgia and the state’s pre-eminent political expert, described Tyson as a self-taught “young gun” who essentially became the GOP counterpart to Linda Meggers, the longtime head of the state’s reapportionment office who had drawn thousands of maps since becoming director in 1978.

Bullock recalled that Tyson went “head to head with her in terms of offering Republican alternatives” in 2001. Tyson’s testimony on the Congressional map in last year’s court case was a direct rebuttal to Meggers, who was recently relieved of her duties by the now GOP-controlled Legislature.

More recently, Tyson testified Feb. 25 before the state Senate redistricting committee on the proposed Congressional map. He explained how he’d drafted the map on his home computer using the suggestions of Georgia Republicans in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

“He’s a human computer,” Westmoreland said. “I swear there are times when I think he knows the election precincts so well that he could reel off the names, addresses and demographic breakdowns of the entire voter list.”

Tyson was born and grew up in Plano, Texas, where his parents — his mother a nurse and his father an engineer — were involved in local Republican politics.

When Tyson was 13, his family moved to Georgia, where he continued the homeschooling that had begun in fifth grade.

When it came time to look at college, Tyson had already decided on a law career so he took three general battery CLEP exams that qualified him to receive 50 hours of college credit. Then, in the fall of 2000 he began a distance learning program through the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy, based in Fresno, Calif. He took classes online and was required to make occasional trips to a testing center in Oklahoma before finishing his degree last month.

“I really want to end up practicing law,” he said. “I enjoy the politics of things and working in the environment, especially policy, but I’ve always seen myself as just kind of fading out of it at some point and just practicing law.”

When he worked for Westmoreland at the statehouse, he handled all policy issues. Now, he is a legislative assistant handling Ways and Means and Judiciary issues.

While Tyson is regarded as a redistricting pro — he estimates he has drawn hundreds of maps by this point — his youth is still evident as he describes the technical fun of using the mapping software.

“It gets almost a video game-like quality to it after you work with it a little while,” said Tyson, who turns 24 in April. “It’s a challenge to pull down the exact number of people and keep the counties whole. You try to follow as many things as you can under the constraints you’re given.”

Republicans are hopeful that the map Tyson drew, which was tweaked slightly late last week, will eventually become law. Still, it has many legal hurdles to go.

Because Georgia falls under the Voting Rights Act, any new Congressional or legislative map must be pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department before it can go into effect. Tyson, therefore, has also had to become an expert in Voting Rights law and subsequent related court decisions.

If the GOP map is eventually passed by the Legislature, Democrats are sure to mount legal challenges to the new lines based on the dilution of the black population in so-called minority influence districts.

The irony is not lost on Tyson, who began his career in politics working in the office of then-Georgia state Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III (D), the son and namesake of the civil rights movement icon who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Through a volunteer legislative aide program run by his church, Tyson worked for three sessions for Abernathy, who failed to qualify for re-election in 1998 and has since been sent to prison twice.

While Tyson describes himself as a lifelong Republican, he appreciated the opportunity to get an insider glimpse of the other party.

“I’ve always thought it was good to have the background to kind of see the Democratic side of things and the Republican side of things so you get to see both sides of the picture,” he said.

Even though Tyson said he has an idealistic view of what redistricting should be — “making sure the people can elect their representative” instead of the other way around — he acknowledged that it is impossible to draw a map without consideration of its partisan repercussions.

“I’m aware the political implications of what I draw,” he said. “When you learn a state, you kind of learn where the Democrats are, where the Republicans are.”

Westmoreland has nothing but praise for how his aide has handled the high-pressure situations in the past four years.

“Not many 23-year-old guys have state legislators and Members of Congress lining up to ask them for favors, but Bryan handles it with a professionalism and maturity that’s well beyond his years,” Westmoreland said. “Everyone who works with Bryan in the process walks away with a deep respect for him because he works really hard, he’s an expert and he’s accommodating. He’s got people coming at him from all sides and he takes it all in stride.”

Luckily, Tyson doesn’t have to take into account any of his own future political aspirations when he’s moving precinct lines and calculating population deviations — he insists he doesn’t harbor any.

He jokes that the proposed Congressional map does not include a “Tyson district” — one that he wouldn’t be legally eligible to run in until the 2008 cycle, of course.

In fact, the new map he drew moves his parents’ Cobb County home from Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey’s 11th district into Democratic Rep. David Scott’s 13th district. It’s a change he said they have embraced.

“They’re fine with it,” he said. “I think they want the plan fixed overall.”