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Redistricting could raise Hall County's profile

Special session may lead to new House district, more state legislators for county

POSTED: August 14, 2011 12:22 a.m.

It is no longer rumor or speculation: Hall County's political power is about to grow.

As Georgia lawmakers migrate toward the Capitol for the special legislative session focused on reconfiguring the state's political boundaries, Hall County will see gains in representation and influence.

The session to redraw the state's maps based on the new U.S. Census numbers begins Monday. Public comment on district proposals begins Tuesday.

Those involved say they hope to avoid major conflicts. But with a process as traditionally partisan as this one, even the most optimistic say disputes, which may even lead to lawsuits, are bound to arise.

For Hall County, the most watched portion of the discussions no doubt will be the effort to reconfigure congressional maps.

Census gains granted Georgia a 14th seat in the U.S. House, but both Capitol staff and legislators say it could be weeks into the session before lawmakers address those new boundaries.

Ever since Gov. Nathan Deal gave up his seat as representative of the 9th District, speculation has been that the new district would be carved from to the home of the new congressman.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Graves says he has not seen a proposed map of the new district, nor did any other state legislator who spoke to The Times.

"I have heard only rumors that the 14th District, the new district, is going to be centered in Hall County, and that's only rumors," state Rep. Amos Amerson said.

"I know nothing about it; I've never seen a map for the congressional districts."

But it is no secret that the current district is overpopulated, with its growth centered in the eastern rim of the district in Forsyth and Hall counties and the current representative hailing from its western edge.

"We know we have to lose 131,000 people right off the bat," Graves said.

Graves says he "imagines" the reconfigured lines will divide the 9th District, pushing it to the northwest corner of the state, leaving open a space for a district in the northeast.

Graves' recent tour of his district included visits to four northwest Georgia counties. When asked, Graves' spokesman John Donnelly said Graves "absolutely" has plans for a similar tour on the eastern side of the district, though no official date for that tour had yet been set.

But before that discussion begins, state lawmakers must deal with their own districts in the state House.

Already, a fight is brewing in some metro Atlanta Democratic districts and in South Georgia counties where proposed cuts in representation will leave two incumbents to battle it out for one remaining seat.

Still, there seems to be a code among the majority party to stick to the basic message: The maps that come from this session will be fair, legal and able to withstand any legal challenge.

Georgia remains under the jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, and its maps must be approved by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts before they can be adopted.

"The primary focus will be whatever's drawn complies fully with the letter of the law and the spirit of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution," said Sen. Butch Miller, a Hall County Republican whose district will be geographically smaller due to growth in the region.

The claim is that Democrats, when in control of the process 10 years ago, did not hold their maps to the same standards.

"It's a different day with the Republicans in control," said Rep. Carl Rogers, a Gainesville Republican.

Republicans deny the minority party's criticisms that the proposed maps were drawn with the intent of rubbing white Democrats out of the House.

"What you won't see is you won't see what happened in 2001 — the districts that were slithers here and slithers there," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

Beyond that, state legislators say they aim to keep "communities of interest" together and minimize the need to split counties to form state legislative districts.

Yet in all cases, Hall County is going to be split.

"We're too big," said Collins, whose House district in North Hall and the southern and eastern reaches of White and Lumpkin counties is currently overpopulated.

Maneuvering Hall's House districts to match population changes also might mean that as many as nine legislators could represent the county's districts under the Gold Dome.

The county would gain a senator as the district of Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, could stretch into the eastern edge of the county.

"When there's more state House members, there's a lot of influence when it comes to budget items or budget cuts, so it can play both ways," Rogers said.

It's also possible, though, that having more legislators might divide the county's interests amongst representatives whose primary base of constituents live outside of Hall.

The new maps lump East Hall into a district with Banks and Stephens counties. The current representative of the district, Republican Michael Harden, lives in Toccoa.

Amerson's district, if approved as currently proposed, would only include one Hall County precinct, he said.
The southern tip of Hall County would be divided among two Gwinnett County districts, one of which would be a new district with an open seat, according to Amerson.

The absorption of South Hall areas currently represented by James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, opens up political opportunities for Hall and Gwinnett hopefuls.

But what those opportunities are, and how much political power they will bring, is yet to be seen.

"We'll just have to wait and see what happens is what we'll have to do," Rogers said.



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