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Columns Tom Baxter

Where district lines cross, politics gets complicated

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

How many state senate seats can you put in a congressional district? That’s not a trick question, but it’s a devilishly complicated one.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at how things are shaping up for the next congressional reapportionment, the first in four decades in which Georgia isn’t expected to gain a new seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Those decades also witnessed a steady shift of power in the General Assembly toward the growing Atlanta Metro Area, which will continue unabated after the next census. It’s not as easy to imagine how things will land when the next state House and Senate maps are drawn, but all indications are the changes will be even more dramatic.

We often think of this as a movement from south to north, but the shift is coiled around Atlanta. Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, in the northwestern corner of the state, faces an erosion of legislative power similar to the 1st Congressional District, in the southeastern corner. The 14th currently includes part or all of five state Senate districts, the fewest in the state, which the 1st has the next fewest with part or all of seven. In both cases, that number could dwindle in the next map.

The answer to that first question which we began with used to be, as many as you possibly can. Districts are supposed to be drawn in such a way that cities and counties are divided between districts as seldom as possible. But because senators whose districts stretch across congressional lines got to vote in more than one Department of Transportation board election, this was once viewed as a great advantage. One North Fulton senator once held four board votes.

Times have changed and those DOT board seats aren’t the plums they used to be, but the way congressional and state Senate lines cross still point toward the vortex of the political map. Two of the five state Senate districts in the 14th are entirely contained within the northeast Georgia district. None of the 10 state Senate districts in the 5th Congressional District, at the center of the swirl, are located entirely in the district.

As the counties outside the metro swirl lose population, the area they have to cover to stay in touch with their constituents grows. Sen. Greg Kirk of Americus, who died Sunday, represented a district which included all of Crisp, Dodge, Dooly, Lee, Tift, Turner and Worth counties, and parts of Sumter and Wilcox. Whoever succeeds him faces the certainty that the map they will run on in 2022 will cover even more territory.

Despite population losses, these districts have continued to send many of the state’s most talented legislators to the Golden Dome, like House Rules chairman Jay Powell, whose sudden death last month at a Republican retreat shocked legislators. It’s going to be harder in the future for these areas to generate leaders who reach similar levels of power.

That’s a problem, particularly at a time when so many of the state’s problems — hospital closings, transportation needs, lagging development and an aging population — are in the areas losing leadership.

Meanwhile, legislative politics in Metro Atlanta is already picking up in advance of the 2020 election. Rep. Pat Gardner’s announcement that she was retiring has quickly developed into an open-seat race between Stacey Evans, who moved into the district after her loss in the famous Democratic primary “battle of the Staceys” to Stacey Abrams, and former Atlanta City Council member Alex Wan. Republican Rep. Matt Dollar, who has taken some heat for his efforts to create a city of East Cobb, has already drawn opposition from Sara Tindall Ghazall, a former state Democratic Party and Carter Center official.

Democrats need to pick up 16 legislative seats in the next election to control the state House and have a real say in how the map is drawn after the 2020 census. That will be a tall order. But it will also be a tall order for Republicans to draw maps with Metro districts they can hold on to in the coming decade.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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