Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Late last Friday, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the Department of Justice quietly approved Georgia’s newly redrawn Congressional and State House and Senate maps. Thus, the legal voice of the Obama administration has chosen not to object to the Republican drawn maps, nor to codify arguments made by Georgia Democrats that the process was inherently unfair, illegal, or discriminatory based on race.
The way announcements are made in Washington says a lot about the message that an administration is attempting to make – or to hide. The announcement was made just before 5pm leading into a long holiday weekend. Most of us were frantically looking for final Christmas gifts or engaging in holiday related travel. Many of us likely skipped the entire weekend news cycle.
For those of us that didn’t avoid news Friday, the DOJ primed the pump hours before the Georgia decision with notice that it would object to South Carolina’s voter ID law. This ensured that the message from a Democratically controlled DOJ would not be that it chose not to battle in Georgia, but that it was actively opposing a Republican backed measure in South Carolina to ensure that those who show up to polling places are actually who they say they are. South Carolina will likely contest the DOJ’s decision.
Back in Georgia, the DOJ decision likely ends the once in a decade process of redistricting which is among the most divisive in politics. Though court challenges may still occur from individuals, the lack of an objection from the DOJ removes the largest legal obstacle to implementation of the new maps for the 2012 elections.
Republican political consultant Mark Rountree estimates the new maps will give Georgia a constitutional majority in both the House and Senate, with at least 2/3 of each body held by Republicans. He estimates 122 of 180 Georgia House seats will be held by Republicans, while 37 of Georgia’s 56 Senate seats maintained by the GOP. In Congress, John Barrow’s 12th district will see the largest change, with the district now drawn to heavily favor a Republican challenger.
The officials elected from these new maps will most likely reflect the new racial realities of Georgia politics. Using Rountree’s estimates, the number of elected white Democrats in the Georgia General Assembly will likely be measured in the teens. Should the power of incumbency not outweigh the partisan math of the redrawn 12th district, Georgia’s Congressional delegation will be composed of 10 Caucasian Republicans and 4 African American Democrats. The coalition of urban African American and rural white Democrats which ruled Georgia for decades is now officially a relic of history.
This transition was exacerbated by several mostly rural white Democrats switching to the Republican Party in advance of the redistricting session. Salt was poured into this wound when Rep Doug McKillip, recently elected Minority caucus chairman, bolted from the Democrats to join the GOP. The raw irritation of remaining Democrats was conveyed during many floor speeches during the August special session, where frequent cries of racism marked a stark break from an air of cooperation that had existed between both parties in the House during the prior session.
With Democrats having no immediate path to majority status in the near future, they will need to develop a strategy for relevance and influence. In doing so, they may wish to consider a strategy similar to that employed by Republicans during the 80’s and 90’s, where Republicans formed coalitions with urban African American Democrats against rural Democrats to make occasional gains. Ironically, it was that coalition which has resulted in the maps and majorities we have today.
Despite the ongoing myth that there are “Two Georgias”, the members of the General Assembly reflect that there are effectively three: Urban Democrats, Suburban Republicans, and Rural Republicans. Senate Democrats had some success in stalling reforms to the HOPE Scholarship by aligning with Rural Republicans against the wishes of leadership and the Governor. More coalitions should be expected on an issue by issue basis, with Democrats aligning with suburban Republicans on issues which may involve transportation and other regional issues, while aligning with rural Republicans when income disparity issues can be exploited.
The outlook for the next decade in the General Assembly has now been drawn. The issues and what ultimately passes for the Governor’s signature will ultimately be framed by how Democrats choose to use their minority status. Unlike the decision from the justice department, it is unlikely that their opinions will be released quietly late on pre-holiday Friday afternoons. Whether they choose to be the loyal opposition, or exploit differences within the Republican supermajority by forming temporary coalitions will ultimately determine their relevance.