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Republicans turn redistricting tables on Democrats

Republicans were livid in 2001 when Democrats then in control of the General Assembly twisted Georgia's legislative maps into all kinds of weird shapes to maximize Democratic voting strength.

Five years later, Republicans now in charge of the Senate are seeking to use their power in a new round of redistricting, although on a smaller scale.

Rather than redrawing the entire Senate map - a process already taken care of to the GOP's satisfaction by a federal court panel - a bill introduced by Sen. Ralph Hudgens, R-Comer, and passed by the Senate would split Clarke County between two districts.

Hudgens would get the eastern end of the county, with the western end remaining in the district now represented by Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens.

With Kemp leaving the legislature to run for agriculture commissioner, Republicans see freshman Rep. Jane Kidd, D-Athens, as a threat to capture the open seat for the Democrats given the district's current configuration.

Splitting heavily Democratic Clarke County would take enough Democratic voters away from Kidd to render her chances more problematic while not hurting Hudgens, who could afford the addition of Democratic voters to his overwhelmingly Republican district.

"Hypocritical'' and "naked power grab'' were among the accusations leveled at the GOP by the Georgia Democratic Party the day the bill passed the Senate.

"We all know what is happening here,'' Kidd said the following day in a speech to her colleagues in the House, where the bill now rests. "This is the kind of political gerrymandering Governor Perdue railed against when it was done by another administration.''

One of Republicans' chief complaints in 2001 was that Democrats were splitting counties - and even precincts - to carve out districts more likely to elect Democratic candidates. They said "communities of interest'' were being ignored in favor of "Democratic performance.''

Turning that argument back on the GOP, Kidd said Athens-Clarke County is a prime example of a community of interest that shouldn't be divided for partisan advantage.

"We are the smallest county geographically in the state and one of only four consolidated governments,'' she said.

The criticism of the bill was intense enough to prompt two Senate Republican leaders to travel to Athens last week to defend it.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson and Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee Chairman Chip Rogers said the main intent of the measure was to put divided Madison County inside a single Senate district at the request of political and business leaders there.

Hudgens said he would continue to represent all of Barrow and Jackson counties while picking up a portion of Clarke County that he represented previously as a member of the House.

The bill also would give Athens two senators rather than one, an advantage, according to the Republicans, because it would mean an extra advocate for Georgia's 14th most populous county. Indeed, they pointed out, 12 of the 13 counties with larger populations than Clarke County already have more than one senator.

"Having the University of Georgia headquartered in Clarke, they need another senator there to represent them,'' Hudgens said.

It's an argument with a familiar ring. Democrats used the same logic in 2001 when they split numerous counties among multiple districts. In one of the more extreme examples, Colquitt County's 42,000 residents in South Georgia were divided among four House districts.

Four advocates are better than one, right?

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.