GOP-proposed commission districts would alter Athens’ political landscape

UPDATE (1/18): Representative Spencer Frye (D) has released an alternative map to the one proposed by his Republican colleagues.

The Republican state legislators representing Athens have proposed a new set of ACC Commission districts, which they released in a joint statement last Thursday. If approved, these new maps would fundamentally alter Athens’ political landscape, shifting a large number of Athenians to new commission districts. It would also prevent three commissioners from running for reelection in 2022, effectively removing them from office by legislative fiat.

Legislature proposed 2022 commission districts

Click here to see the proposed maps with streets included.

Analyzing the new districts

District 1

Current commissioner: Patrick Davenport
Most similar to: A fragment of the current district 1
Political effects of changes: Moderate

The proposed new commission district 1 takes the southern portion of the current district 1 (Barnett Shoals Road, Old Lexington Road, Whitehall Road) and combines it with the eastern portion of the current district 8 (most notably, the Cedar Creek neighborhood). 

These changes, while significant, may not have drastic political effects since they do allow Commissioner Patrick Davenport to run for re-election. The current district 1 is one of Athens’ more conservative districts, even if it is majority Democratic. The new district would probably be similar.

Perhaps the most disruptive political aspect of this new map is the removal of Winterville and surrounding areas. Davenport had gone out of his way in recent years to build bridges with constituents in the city of Winterville, but now they’ll have someone else as commissioner.

There does not appear to be any cohesive community of interest represented by this proposed new map, at least from my limited understanding of the area.

District 2

Current commissioner: Mariah Parker
Most similar to: The current district 3
Political effects of changes: Massive

The political implications here are massive. Nevertheless, these changes wouldn’t be as concerning if it was still called district 3. The new district would retain the high-turnout, white neighborhoods of Boulevard and Cobbham and would still be connected to part of the historically Black neighborhood surrounding West Hancock avenue from the current district 3. In the new map, these areas would also be connected to the gentrifying neighborhoods of Newtown and part of East Athens (First through Fourth Streets and surrounding areas), which currently belong to districts 9 and 2. 

The new district would be even more progressive than the current district 3, if that’s possible, but beyond that the major effect here stems solely from the renumbering of the district. That, by itself, prevents Commissioner Melissa Link from running for re-election. Even-numbered districts aren’t up in this cycle, so if the state legislature approves the map and changes the district number from three to two in the process, Link will be removed from office.

Another effect of this new map would be to disenfranchise of some of the highest turnout neighborhoods in Athens, who wouldn’t be able to vote for commissioner in this year’s local election. Without their voices, the commission will likely move rightward in the short-term.

District 3

Current commissioner: Melissa Link
Most similar to: The current district 2, combined with Winterville
Political effects of changes: Massive

The new district 3 is essentially the current district 2 (East Athens) combined with the northern end of current district 1 (Winterville).

This plan splits the historically Black East Athens neighborhoods into different districts, which some may find concerning. It might also be illegal. This has been, at least until recently, a discrete community of interest that should not be split according to redistricting law, although gentrification has admittedly caused significant changes to the area.

The seriousness of splitting this community of interest is perhaps debatable. What’s not debatable is that this map has no relation at all to the current district 3. There is no overlap whatsoever. No justification was given for the number change in the Republican press release.

No sitting commissioner lives within this district right now, making it an open seat if these maps are approved by the legislature. The addition of parts of district 1 will probably nudge this district rightward from the old district 2; moderate candidates will probably do well here.

District 4

Current commissioner: Allison Wright
Most similar to: The current district 4, combined with downtown
Political effects of changes: Moderate

The district containing UGA expands northward in the new map, crossing the mythical “khaki line” to swallow downtown and the neighborhood along West Hancock Avenue east of Milledge Avenue. Wait… that sounds about right, actually.

This district retains enough of Five Points to allow Commissioner Allison Wright to run for re-election in 2024, but otherwise it primarily consists of very low-turnout, student-heavy areas held by current districts 3 and 7. The major political effect of this new map will be that, if approved, the winning candidate will almost definitely have to succeed in Wright’s own neighborhood, a difficult feat for a challenger. Although the population exists in the rest of this district to overwhelm the votes of Wright’s neighbors several times over, mobilizing them would be a challenge as UGA students generally do not vote in local elections.

This commission district, which already has one of the lowest voter turnouts in Athens, will likely see its turnout sink even lower as a result of these changes. The new map also splits the historically Black West Hancock neighborhood, although like East Athens, it has seen a large degree of gentrification recently.

District 5

Current commissioner: Tim Denson
Most similar to: Has little similarity to any existing district
Political effects of changes: Massive

The new district 5 is a collection of bits from current districts 3, 5 and 6. It includes the Country Club Estates neighborhood, currently in district 3; the Homewood Hills neighborhood, currently in district 5; and the Forest Heights neighborhood, currently in district 6. By excluding Normaltown, the new district 5 will likely be more conservative than it is currently, although progressive candidates should still be competitive here.

The most important change for residents of the current district 5 is that their commissioner, Commissioner Tim Denson, is drawn out of this map by a few hundred yards. That prevents him from running for reelection in this cycle.

District 6

Current commissioner: Jesse Houle
Most similar to: The current district 6
Political effects of changes: Large

District 6, encompassing west Athens, will grow more conservative as a result of the changes being proposed since it loses the Forest Heights neighborhood. That’s bad news for Commissioner Jesse Houle, who got many of their votes from that neighborhood in the last election.

On the other hand, the district becomes one of three majority-minority districts in the legislature’s plan (considering only those 18 or older). It accomplishes this by adding the neighborhoods off Lavender Road, which have a large African-American population. However, in practice it’s likely that the wealthier, white neighborhoods elsewhere in the district will continue to dominate vote counts during May local elections, which have notoriously low voter turnout.

The conservative bent of some of the high voter turnout neighborhoods in this district paves the way for a conservative Democrat or even a Republican to potentially win here.

District 7

Current commissioner: Russell Edwards
Most similar to: The current district 10
Political effects of changes: Massive

What is called district 7 in the new proposal is essentially the current district 10, minus the neighborhood surrounding West Rutherford Street where Commissioner Mike Hamby lives. It also picks up some UGA student neighborhoods on South Milledge.

The changes here are minor, but the political fallout is immense. That’s all because it is being renumbered – district 10 will be called district 7 if this proposal is implemented. That removes Commissioner Russell Edwards from his political home in the current district 7 and places him in the new district 10 with Hamby. As such, Edwards will be prevented from running for reelection and will be removed from office.

If this proposal is implemented, the so-called district 7 will be in search of a new commissioner on a very short timetable before qualifying for the local elections happens in March.

District 8

Current commissioner: Carol Myers
Most similar to: The current district 8
Political effects of changes: Minor

In this proposal, district 8 loses the Cedar Creek neighborhood, most of Cedar Shoals Drive and everything east of Whit Davis Road. In exchange, it gains some apartments off Barnett Shoals Road by the loop. This should cause turnout in the district to dip slightly, but probably won’t have much political impact. Commissioner Carol Myers will continue to do well here with or without these changes. However, the confusion that may be caused by suddenly putting so many voters in another commission district should not be underestimated.

District 9

Current commissioner: Ovita Thornton
Most similar to: The current district 9
Political effects of changes: Moderate

District 9 will lose Pulaski Street and the historically Black neighborhood of Newtown while gaining the 441 corridor if this proposal goes into effect. That will cause the district to shift rightward, making it very comfortable for a moderate Black Democrat like Commissioner Ovita Thornton. Potential challengers beware! Thornton seems guaranteed to get at least 60% of the vote in this district, regardless of the quality of her opposition, if not 70% or even higher. 

Conservative Democrats or even Republicans could do well here in the future, once Thornton decides to retire from politics. But with these changes, she’ll represent this district as long as she wants. Simply put, she’s unbeatable here.

District 10

Current commissioner: Mike Hamby
Most similar to: Has little similarity to any existing district
Political effects of changes: Moderate

This proposed district 10 has no similarity to any existing district. Instead, it embodies the “City of Five Points” idea as a commission district. The Five Points area, with the exception of Wright’s neighborhood, had previously been scattered into districts 4, 7 and 10, but now would be combined into one district if this proposal is implemented.

It’s the perfect political home for a white moderate or conservative like Commissioner Mike Hamby. It will provide him an excellent fundraising base while being compact and easy to canvas. Furthermore, it allows Hamby to shift his focus as commissioner. In the current district 10, Hamby’s focus had to be on the Timothy Road area, but now, he’ll be free to solely represent his own neighborhood and surrounding areas.

The Republican defense of this proposal

Athens’ Republican legislative delegation issued a statement defending their proposal last week. They argued that since the ACC Commission had failed to come to a consensus on a map of their own, it was their duty to step in.

They gave a couple reasons explaining why they thought this set of maps is superior to any other. First, they say their proposal keeps “neighborhoods and communities of interest whole” while having more compact districts that are more equal in population than the current ones. They also point out that the new proposal increases the number of majority-minority districts from two to four.

They fail to mention that East Athens, a traditionally Black neighborhood, is broken into two pieces in this proposal. And while their proposal does include four majority-minority districts, they don’t explain that this is only true when looking at total population. When looking at voting-age population, that number shrinks to three.

The new maps may not do much at all to increase minority representation on the commission, which currently has three Black members. In fact, Black representation on the body could easily shrink in coming years if East Athens is split.

Bill Cowsert
Bill Cowsert (R)

State Senator Bill Cowsert defended the proposal on Tim Bryant’s radio show last week, citing many of the points made in the statement discussed above. Cowsert added that he feels the proposal will increase “geographic diversity” by creating districts centered more on the edges of the county. It’s a little unclear what exactly he means by this concept, since the commission already has a member from the far-west of the county (Houle), a commissioner from the far-east side (Davenport), one from the north (Thornton) and also one living in the southernmost portion (Edwards). Five commissioners live inside and five live outside the perimeter as things stand right now.

In his conversation with Bryant, Cowsert implied that he thought this map was popular with the commission. He said that three commissioners had already called him to say that they loved the plan, which removes three of their colleagues from office. Cowsert was presumably referring to Wright, Thornton and Hamby, since they were the commissioners who prevented the commission’s version of the maps from passing unanimously. APN contacted these commissioners, but Wright and Hamby have not yet replied and Thornton declined to comment.

A “subversion of our democracy”

Representative Spencer Frye, a Democrat, was not consulted while these new maps were being drawn. In a comment to APN, Frye said that the proposal is “a continued subversion of our democracy that we have come to expect from the Party of Trump.”

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Commissioner Patrick Davenport was just as firm in his opposition to the proposal, telling APN that “this is retaliatory and wrong. We have commissioners who overwhelmingly won their elections through a democratic process. Democracy dies when we silence peoples’ votes.”

Despite the potential harm to our democracy, Commissioner Mariah Parker maintained a hopeful tone. “This attempt to oust progressive community servants is disappointing, but regardless of who holds power, history tells us that mass movements of organized people are necessary to topple injustice. I have seen Athens mobilize and raise hell on countless occasions and I have faith the people will continue to do so, no matter what, until we all get free,” they said.

Next steps

The new maps still need to be approved by the state legislature and the Governor. If you have any comments about them, now is the time to send those on to your state representatives.

Even if these maps are approved, there is the possibility of a lawsuit to challenge them before they go into effect. APN will keep you updated on this important story as it develops.

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