published Monday, December 20th, 2010

New district is likely for North Georgia


by Andy Johns

Lawmakers expect North Georgia to gain representatives at the state and national level when the Legislature redraws political district lines based on U.S. census data in 2011.

"It's numbers; it's plain and simple," said Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, speaking at a roundtable discussion this month.

In general, the legislators expect the state districts to reflect population trends, with South Georgia losing a few representatives and North Georgia gaining. Census records show that North Georgia's population rose from 2000 to 2009, which experts attribute to sprawl from suburban Atlanta and couples retiring to the mountains.

Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, said he had read that South Georgia could lose as many as four or five districts in the state House.

The five state representatives at the roundtable acknowledged that nothing was decided. But all said that redistricting would go more smoothly than in 2001, when the Legislature couldn't draw acceptable districts and a court had to decide on the lines.

"I think we're going to be able to get together this time," said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton.

More districts would mean more representatives, which should lead to more power for North Georgia in the General Assembly. While legislators said a North-heavy House couldn't neglect South Georgia, they said it can't hurt when it comes to allocating money for projects around the state.

CONGRESS, TOO

While the state House districts could vary depending on a number of factors, the picture is slightly less muddy on the congressional level.

Lawmakers suggested that, if Georgia got a new congressional district, it probably would come to North Georgia because of population trends and because much of the state's leadership will be from North Georgia when the new Congress convenes in January.

Several, including Meadows, said they hoped the 9th District, which currently runs 120 miles from Lookout Mountain to Lake Lanier, would be redrawn to resemble the old 7th District, which ran from the eastern edge of Murray, Gordon and Bartow counties south to Haralson and Cobb counties.

Meadows suggested the district would cut out Cobb and Paulding, which would remain in the 11th District.

Legislators say the district would lump Dalton, Rome, Fort Oglethorpe, Cartersville and Cedartown together. They said those towns have more in common with one other than they do with the suburban Atlanta residents at the far reaches of their current district.

A district like the one the lawmakers discussed would take parts from the 9th and 11th districts, which are represented by Republicans Tom Graves and Phil Gingrey, respectively.

In an interview last week, Graves said he expects "some changes" but said it was premature to speculate on any new lines to be drawn. He said the 9th District is overpopulated by about 150,000 compared with other districts.

Graves said he would work to represent his constituents wherever they might be.

A spokeswoman for Gingrey declined to comment.

Charlie Harper, editor of the Peach Pundit political blog, is looking for a compromise.

"Each of the districts are going to give up a piece of something," Harper said.

WHO'S ON FIRST?

He said the proposed 9th District makes sense because the new district would be centered around Gainesville, the hometown of Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. He said a Northeast or North-Central district makes sense not only because of the powerful leaders who hail from the region but it's "the easiest place to draw a district where an incumbent doesn't already live."

"I think this is one of those rare times that you can go into redistricting and you can read the tea leaves and see what's going to happen," Harper said in a phone interview.

Because of geography, Graves, who lives in Gordon County, almost certainly would retain most of Northwest Georgia in his district, Harper said.

During campaigns over the summer, Graves' primary opponent, Lee Hawkins, a dentist and former state senator from Gainesville, had his strongest support on the east side of the district and sent out fliers to Hall County residents, stressing the importance of having a representative from their side of the region.

Hawkins said he had heard about the potential new district and had actually been advised by some to not run for the 9th District seat against Graves, but to wait and run for the new seat in 2012.

Hawkins, who was vice chairman of the state Senate's redistricting committee until he resigned earlier this year to run for Congress, said it was premature to speculate too much, but said he would "look to the future with the thought of running" if the new district were centered around Gainesville.

Harper suggested Cagle might be a logical candidate. Republican lawmakers reduced Cagle's powers this winter after many disapproved of the way he handled legislative committee assignments last year.

But Cagle won re-election by a comfortable margin in November. Coupled with his reduced role as the No. 2 executive in the state, that could make him a prime candidate for the potential congressional seat, according to Harper.

Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, who recently switched to the GOP, and state Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, have also been mentioned as potential candidates for the district.

Follow Andy Johns on Twitter

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

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