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The cartography of ambition 

Mapmaking + down and dirty politics = the road to Congress

On the surface, the General Assembly's job seems simple enough: After carving the state into new state House and state Senate districts over the next week or two, lawmakers will use census information to come up with 13 congressional districts, each with a population as close to 629,727 as possible.

Of course, complications will arise. Just about every state senator and state representative harbors a secret or not-so-secret ambition to get to Washington. At some point in their careers, all politicians dream of getting to Congress.

Congressman. They say it out loud to themselves. They whisper it when they're looking into the mirror -- the United States Congress. It could really happen. If only one of those new districts was built out of my political turf.

Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta, is no different. When he was 13, he wrote a school paper that outlined how he'd become a lawyer to prepare him for a life in politics. The pinnacle of that career would be winning a congressional seat.

Allen, naturally, practices law. He was elected to the state House and is in the midst of his third term. Now he's going for the Gold Medal.

Back in April, he drew the district map that could turn him into a bona fide Congressman. If that map passes, he'll start fund raising for the campaign.

But Allen has a major battle ahead. To work the map through the General Assembly, Allen may have to make friends with his enemies and fight one of his longtime allies. If he upsets too many colleagues along the way (or just a really powerful one), he could be drawn out of his current House seat and he'd be left with nothing -- every congressional hopeful knows this.

Redistricting is a war. It's fought with lines and numbers. In Georgia, the most important number is what redistricting junkies call the black VAP -- the percentage of voting-age residents in a district who are black. The black VAP will tell you whether a district is winnable for Republicans, black Democrats or white Democrats. The lower the black VAP, the better chance a Republican has at winning that district.

The black VAP in U.S. Rep. Bob Barr's district is 16.7 percent. U.S. Rep Nathan Deal's is 3 percent. They're both conservative Republicans. The black VAP in U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop's district is 37.2 percent, the lowest concentration for any of the state's three black Democratic congressional representatives.

The district Allen is proposing would have a 38.6 percent black VAP. Of course, those black voters didn't march over the state line from South Carolina. Allen would have to grab them mainly from the districts of neighboring Republican incumbents, which sets up a perfect case of politics making strange bedfellows.

Allen's proposed district would take in counties with large black populations like Washington, Jefferson and Burke. So the percentage of black voters in the district now represented by Charles Norwood, R-Augusta, would drop from 35.8 percent to less than 17 percent. That, presumably, would make Norwood less vulnerable to Democratic opposition.

Allen says that right after he presented his map to the House redistricting committee July 20, one of Norwood's assistants told him, "That's a good district."

"Evidently our mindset is somewhat similar, which is good," Allen says. "By showing my map to the committee and getting the feedback that I did, I've already laid some preliminary groundwork. But I won't really see who I could develop coalitions with to produce the votes necessary until the special session."

If politics makes strange bedfellows, however, it also can make surprising adversaries. State Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, is among the most powerful black elected officials in Georgia. The seat Allen drew is on Walker's home turf, and Walker is said to be interested in a new Democratic district that includes Augusta, either for himself or for his son, Charles Walker Jr.

In a recent telephone interview, Walker Jr., said he's been thinking about running for more than a year. But he also says his pop has first dibs if a winnable seat emerges from the redistricting session. The elder Walker didn't return repeated phone calls from CL.

The tough break for Allen is that, in the very district that he drew, he'd be an underdog against the senator -- who has access to east Georgia's most formidable political machine. A race between the three-term state representative, and the younger Walker, who has no political experience but access to his father's machine, also might be a tough row to hoe. The end result could be that even if Allen's map made it all the way through the special session, the upstart Walker Jr., could win the seat Allen customized for himself.

That's the risk, that's politics.

Allen did talk to Sen. Walker before he presented his congressional district to the House redistricting committee.

"I told him I needed his support and I can't win without his support. Whether or not I have his support, I don't know," Allen says. "He didn't confirm or deny that he was seeking a congressional seat. That's how things are sometimes; the person says they are weighing their options. I respect Mr. Walker. He has the political savvy to be an excellent congressman. But I also would like to have that seat."

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12/11/2014

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