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Our Views: Map to the future

A proposed ‘Lake Lanier’ US House district would unite common interests

POSTED: August 14, 2011 1:00 a.m.

This week, Georgia legislators begin the arduous and divisive process of redrawing the state's political maps based on population shifts reflected by the 2010 census. It's a tough job for whichever party has the reins.

Democrats made such a hash of it in the last decade, with their inkblot maps rejected by both federal courts and voters, that they lost the majority to Republicans.

Now the GOP has the delicate task of satisfying legal concerns while they attempt to strengthen their hold on power. To ask politicians to do otherwise is folly, so we might as well accept that as a realistic, if unwelcome, byproduct of the process.

Already, the proposed legislative maps are under fire from Democratic leaders, but that also is expected, if not obligatory. What should matter more to the rest of us is whether the districts are grouped to include Georgians with common interests and concerns. That is where the process has failed so badly in the recent past.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly have vowed to do their best to draw cleaner maps that better represent the residents of each district. We'll see.

The map most are focused on here is for the U.S. House, where Georgia will be wedging a 14th district into its growing state. Such was the case after the 2000 census, when the new 13th House seat was drawn to look like a half-eaten doughnut stretching from Marietta to Hampton in one of the most extreme cases of gerrymandering.

Hall County residents will be most interested to see where the new district ends up. Talk already has centered on putting the new 14th north of Atlanta to include Hall and Forsyth counties, plus a few others.

The current 9th District in which Hall and Forsyth reside is spread out across the northern chunk of the state and extends from Gainesville to Georgia's northwestern corner of Dade County, where Alabama and Tennessee border the state.

That far-flung nature of the district was evident in the last election for the seat formerly held by now Gov. Nathan Deal. The top GOP contenders were from opposite sides of the district: Tom Graves of Ranger and Lee Hawkins of Gainesville. The two met four times, in a special election, a primary and two runoffs, with similar results each time. Hawkins carried his stronghold of Hall while Graves cleaned up in the western part of the district and won the seat.

But whatever one thinks of Graves politically, Gainesville and Hall County find themselves represented by a House member who is not local for the first time in 18 years. And that's not ideal representation, however you slice it.
Graves' interests are naturally bound to be split between those of our area and the others he represents. He has an office in Gainesville, but it's understandable that he can't spend a lot of time here with such a wide district to represent.

The 9th District had one of the state's highest rates of growth over the last decade. It's due to be split up so residents in the disparate northwestern and northeastern sections of the state can elect their own representatives. The lesser-populated mountain counties simply don't have the same needs as the faster-growing outer suburbs.

The 2010 census showed Hall growing to nearly 180,000 residents, with Forsyth just behind at 175,000. With each Georgia district needing to include almost 700,000 residents, those two counties could account for more than half that total in a new 14th.

One proposal being discussed would create a new district from those neighboring counties, plus Cherokee (with more than 215,000 residents), Lumpkin, Dawson and part of Habersham counties. That would join several counties in a "northern arc" district similar in demographics and interests.

Forsyth and Hall, as anchors of a new district, are exurban counties that include a mix of Atlanta commuters, retirees and commercial development. They share many concerns and values.

A chief one of those is water. Both counties draw their drinking water from Lake Lanier, giving us a true bond over a major resource. With the lake's future as a water source still being bandied about in the courts and subject to states' negotiation, having a strong locally based advocate in Congress would be a major plus.

Both Forsyth and Hall seek to rely on new reservoirs to diversify their water sources, whether or not the courts allow intakes from Lanier to continue unabated in years to come. In fact, Forsyth is interested in buying water from the proposed Glades Reservoir in north Hall. Leaders in both counties know that even if the legal hurdles are overcome, future droughts could threaten our lone water source and more options are needed.

Lumpkin and Dawson also share Lanier shorelines and are in the same boat, which could make the district almost a "Lake Lanier" seat in the House. Adding a populous county like Cherokee shouldn't take away from that. It has the same kind of population and interests, even if it doesn't touch the lake.

If such a district is spawned from the redistricting process and upheld by federal courts, it would create an open House seat, possibly by 2014, that likely would include an array of well-known candidates from the region. Such a lively contest for the seat could energize voters throughout the region and result in a House member who truly represents the specific interests of our area.

Grouping constituents of similar needs and concerns makes a lot more sense than arbitrarily drawing lines to group voting blocs to favor Democrats or Republicans.

The proposed new district sounds like a solid plan for local residents, one we hope the legislature will consider, or at least a variation thereof. Grouping Georgians with common interests is the best way to undo any redistricting nonsense that was foisted on us in the past.



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