Democrats Vow to Sue Over Ga. Map

Posted March 9, 2005 at 6:41pm

In their first unified display of opposition to the mid-decade redistricting effort under way in Georgia, Democrats in the state’s Congressional delegation penned a warning letter to state GOP leaders Wednesday, vowing an aggressive Voting Rights Act challenge if the remap proceeds.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the dean of the Georgia Democrats, said the letter from the delegation makes it clear they oppose the redistricting effort and questions its legality.

He said GOP officials have redrawn the lines to “dilute the influence of African Americans,” and said Georgia Members are “putting them on notice” that they will take them to court if they move forward.

“It is important we are unified,” Lewis said Wednesday. “This proposed map violates the spirit of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

He added: “If we have to go to court, we are going to.”

Because Georgia is covered by the Voting Rights Act, any changes to the state’s maps must be cleared by the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C.

The Democrats’ letter, however, wasn’t expected to be enough to stop the Congressional map from passing the Georgia House in the next few days. Republicans are likely to take up the proposal on the House floor Friday, although it could see action there as soon as today.

While Georgia House Democrats broke their public silence on the proposed changes Wednesday, they have spent much of the last week discussing their strategy with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Hoyer, who dealt with redistricting in his home state in 2001, also traveled to Atlanta on Monday to discuss the GOP-drawn map with Democratic leaders in the Legislature.

Republicans called the Democrats’ letter a last-ditch attempt to reverse a remap whose passage has appeared inevitable. They also expressed confidence that the proposed map, if approved, will pass muster with the Justice Department.

“They aren’t the only ones who have read the Voting Rights Act,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), a chief redistricting proponent. “We know what the law is. We know what the standards are. We have followed those standards to the letter of the law and we’ve had minority input. Frankly, they look desperate.”

Democrats are sure to voice opposition to the plan when it is debated on the floor in the state House, although they acknowledge their party has no legislative ability to put the brakes on the GOP-led effort.

“I think that ultimately the Supreme Court will have to decide if this is an appropriate time to be redrawing political boundaries,” said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D), the president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected officials. “The Republicans have the votes. They can pass whatever they want to pass.”

When Texas Republicans pushed through a redraw of Congressional boundaries in 2003, Democratic state legislators fled first to Oklahoma and then to New Mexico in an attempt to stave off the changes. Those evasion tactics eventually failed, and the GOP pushed through a new map later in the year.

In Georgia, however, Democrats lack a similar recourse.

“Politically, there’s nothing to be done to stop them from doing it,” one Georgia Democratic strategist said Wednesday. “Legally there may be. But that remains to be seen [based on] what the final outcome of it is.”

The proposed map, which has undergone what is described as minor tweaks in the last week, would politically jeopardize the state’s two white Democrats, Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow.

Barrow would be forced to run in a district that still favors Democrats but does not include his Athens home. The freshman could also potentially face a primary challenge from a black Democrat in the redrawn 12th, which would have a black voting age population of close to 42 percent.

Marshall, meanwhile, would see the black population in his Middle Georgia 3rd district drop from 40 percent to 33 percent and the Republican presidential performance would increase from 52 percent to 58 percent.

When asked Tuesday night whether he thought there would be a legal challenge to the proposed map, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) seemed to intimate that that decision was out of the hands of Congressional Democrats.

“That will be up to the people of Georgia to decide,” he said.

Scott, who represents one of the most awkwardly-configured districts penned by state Democrats in 2001, is one of two black Democrats in the delegation who have reportedly sought to negotiate with the GOP over the boundaries of their newly-proposed districts. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) is the other.

Scott said that he does not want to change any of the constituents he currently represents in a district he says is shaped like “the right hand of God” and includes portions of 11 counties.

But he also acknowledged the need to be prepared for a different outcome.

“I never refuse an opportunity to sit down at the table,” Scott said.

He said his discussions were based on the concerns of constituents who wanted to keep him as their Representative, and his desire to keep one particular community, Ellenwood, intact and entirely within the boundaries of the 13th district.

Scott boasted about his ability to deliver federal dollars for projects that he has steered toward the district. He said his ability to get things done is based on the fact that he has built bipartisan partnerships and that it “would be foolish” for his constituents “not to keep me in there.”

But in the end, he acknowledged his has little say in the final outcome.

“I’m just a passenger on this ship,” he said.