Really ugly sausage making 

Redistricting brings out the nastiest -- and most entertaining -- side of the General Assembly

Usually, state lawmakers spend the winter-long General Assembly session hobnobbing with lobbyists, returning campaign favors and working to please their constituents.

This is the one year in 10 they'll spend an inordinate portion of time worrying if they'll have any constituents left during the next election.

That's because this is the year the General Assembly takes up the dreaded topic of redistricting -- a process by which all legislators attempt to brown-nose and backstab their way toward drawing lines on a map that protect their home turf. If, as they say, lawmaking is as ugly to watch as is making sausages, redistricting amounts to the part when the entrails and errant cockroaches are thrown into the mix.

It's a task lawmakers take up at the start of every decade, when the U.S. Census dictates that congressional, state Senate and state House districts be redrawn to reflect population shifts. It's also a game that produces winners and losers, depending on who gets to absorb precincts that will help them win re-election, who gets to keep unwanted voters out of their district and who has to endure the most challenging prospect of them all: getting thrown into an unfamiliar territory with a fellow incumbent.

And it's an issue that will shade every other political battle during the legislative session, heightening the normal partisanship, creating odd bedfellows and straining longtime friendships.

Some of the year's most popular causes, like teen driving and Gov. Roy Barnes' water agency, will have Democrats and Republicans holding hands, singing and skipping up the Capitol steps.

"Politicians are keeping their eye on [redistricting] and are trying to make as few enemies as possible," says Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson. "The lion and the lamb will lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep."

But the sounds of "Kumbaya" lofting up through the Golden Dome often will be drowned out by bare-knuckled partisan battles. As usual, legislators won't muster the will to accomplish all of the things they need to. They're unlikely, for example, to pay attention to less-sexy issues, like the state's aging prison population, which threatens to overwhelm the state's correctional system with sick, expensive-to-care-for old men.

One issue -- the potentially explosive effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag -- even threatens to rip apart the Democrats' solidarity during a redistricting session, just when they need to stick together to maintain the party's power. Here's a look at the flag debate and seven other issues that may define the session:

The flag

If lawmakers don't successfully pull the Confederate battle emblem off the state flag this year, the rest of the country's beliefs about the state may appear true: John Rocker wasn't an exception and Georgia really is chock-full of rednecks.

Oh well. Despite pressure from civil rights groups and Atlanta business leaders, the flag -- adopted in 1956 -- probably still will be flying high after the session ends.

Part of the problem for reformers is that changing the flag isn't very popular outside Atlanta. Rural and conservative suburban legislators couldn't care less about whether the NCAA, which has threatened to boycott any state that publicly displays the Confederate emblem, or anyone else decides to take their events out of Atlanta.

In 1993, then-Gov. Zell Miller tried and failed to change the flag -- and nearly got clocked in the '94 election as a result.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, a black Democrat from Columbus who supports changing the flag, concedes that flag-change forces don't have enough votes in the House or Senate. Smyre may not even have the votes to get the legislation out of the Rules Committee, which he chairs.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus already are complaining that Barnes, the one man who could give them a big political boost, has so far ducked the issue. But he's lying low because he's going to need a job in two years, and since George W. hasn't asked him to head NASA, Barnes is likely to run for governor again. He knows most Georgians just aren't ready to remove the Confederate flag to a place where they can't see it every single day -- and he's unlikely to push for a change until he's convinced he has the political cover.

One of the burning questions of the upcoming session: Is the black caucus powerful enough behind the scenes to get other Democrats to forsake their pro-Confederate constituents? Another key question: Will the flag debate drive a wedge between rural white Democrats and urban black Democrats that could handicap the party during redistricting and in the 2002 elections?

Redistricting

This year, Democrats again will have the upper hand in redistricting because they preside over both houses with a 30-seat majority in the House and an eight-seat edge in the Senate. But that doesn't guarantee the right moves.

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