Monday, March 26, 2012

Mayor Deke Plays Both Sides Over Redistricting

The Mayor has played both sides on redistricting
Monday, March 26, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

UPDATE: Augusta Commissioners voted 9-0 on April 9, 2012  to have a Federal Judge redraw the Augusta Commission and School board maps.

The inability for Augusta's local legislative delegation to agree on new redistricting maps for Augusta-Richmond county nearly resulted in the courts taking over the process, but it appears that  may have been averted today when  a state Senate committee signed off on  a bill sponsored by  State Sen. Jesse Stone (R-Waynesboro) approving an alternative map known as 2-R along party lines. If The House concurs, as is expected, the maps should go into effect for this year's local elections, pending approval from the US Justice Department.

The process should have been settled back in December of last year. An ad-hoc committee was formed, including members of the Augusta Commission, Richmond County School Board and the local state legislative delegation. A redistricting expert was brought in, Linda Meggers, at a cost to the taxpayers, for the purposes of drawing a compromise map. What the committee had agreed upon was known as map 3-R. It passed the ad-hoc committee unanimously on November 29, 2011, including getting the approval from Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith, who both served on the committee.

However, something happened between that time and December 6th, 2011, when the map came up before The Augusta Commission for its endorsement. Ad-hoc committee members Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith had changed their minds with Brigham vociferously lobbying for the commission to reject the map. My, what a change in just one week! Brigham raised objections that map 3-R would change the racial balance on the commission and school board by making district 6 a majority black voting district (with over 60%). Brigham now maintained that the consolidation charter guaranteed a 5-5 racial balance on the commission regardless if demographic shifts had occurred. The Consolidation Charter took effect in 1996. Since then, district 6 has been considered a "swing" district, despite always being represented by a white commissioner during that time.

Brigham was able to muster 5 commissioners to oppose the compromise map (that he had just voted to approve a week earlier) at the December 6 commission meeting. The map failed by default because Mayor Deke Copenhaver decided to take a vacation on that day, so he was unable to break the 5-5 tie. Upon returning from his trip, The Mayor announced that if he had been present he would have voted in favor of the compromise map saying in an email: "If I was to vote on it, I would vote in favor of it, as it received unanimous approval by the redistricting committee."

Based on the revelation that The Mayor would have supported the map, Commissioner Alvin Mason brought it back before the commission for a re-vote on December 20, 2011 when the Mayor would be present. Once again the map failed to gain 6 votes. Commissioner Brigham used the abstention loophole this time to keep the Mayor from breaking a 5-5 tie. So Commissioner Mason asked The Mayor to agree to sign a letter of support for map-3R along with the other 5 commissioners and members of the ad-hoc committee that drew the map that would be forwarded to members of the local legislative delegation and the US Justice Department, showing that a majority of the commission did support the map. The Mayor agreed to do so as long as the legal department said that it was OK. The legal department later said there was nothing preventing the mayor from signing such a letter of support.

The Mayor never signed that letter. He later repositioned himself on the issue saying that he wanted to give the local legislative delegation an opportunity to work on the matter first. But the the whole point of the letter was to show the local legislative delegation that a majority of the Augusta Commission (5 commissioners and the Mayor) supported the map and that this would help it sail through the legislature. Instead, the local legislative delegation deadlocked, with Commissioner Jerry Brigham going to State Sen. Jesse Stone to oppose the map. 

So the entire redistricting process was put in limbo with State Sen. Hardie Davis Jr supporting the compromise map 3-R that was uninimously approved by the ad-hoc committee and State Sen. Jesse Stone wanting the process to start from scratch with an entirely new map being drawn up. Seeing that neither was willing to budge.. both  Senators withdrew their requests over redistricting, keeping the current maps drawn up after the 2000 census. But not coming up with new maps would put the county in violation of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution and the 1964 Voting Voting Rights Act. This would have resulted in the courts stepping in and re-drawing the maps themselves with no input from the locals.

For local power-brokers who had problems with  map-3R and the possible shift in the racial balance on the commission that may have resulted, the thought of the courts taking over the process and drawing the maps must have sent shivers down their spines. The courts are not obligated to keep incumbents in separate districts and splitting neighborhoods. The court maps would also have likely resulted in a super black majority on the commission.

This sent some local power-brokers (known as The Cabal by some political observers) into panic mode. A group of them traveled up to Atlanta last Wednesday for "Augusta Day" and asked Sen. Jesse Stone to submit  redistricting map 2-R for approval instead to avert having the process taken over by the courts. Map 2-R is similar to map 3-R but instead keeps district 6 a "swing" district with a racial  make-up  similar to the current map. This would presumably keep a 5-5 racial balance on the commission and school board. This map was considered by the ad-hoc committee last November, but they opted for map 3-R instead.

Sen. Stone says that Mayor Deke Copenhaver was the key to getting the Republican backed map passed, when he gave his support for it last week. In an article in the Augusta Chronicle, the Mayor was quoted as saying: "“I am a firm believer in not legislating through the judicial system and offered my support to save our city the embarrassment, not to mention the expense, of having to have the courts draw our lines for us.”

This is coming from the same mayor who previously said he supported Map-3R, that had passed unanimously in the ad-hoc committee. This is the same mayor who said back on December 20th, 2011 that he would sign a letter of support for Map-3R that would be forwarded to the General Assembly and The US Justice Department.

This crisis over redistricting could have been averted entirely with the issue settled months ago. It's rather ironic that the same people who created the mess in the first place were scrambling to avert a bigger crisis: a local election coming up on July 31st with the redistricting issue still not settled and the courts taking over the process that could have further delayed it, resulting in a map even more unfavorable to this same group who opposed map-3R. So now they were in damage control to avert the nuclear option: court intervention.

However, since Georgia is still under provisions of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, the US Justice Department will still have to give its stamp of approval to the map that passed in the state Senate committee today. The circus over the local redistricting process may give them pause, and combined with other efforts to change the date of local elections in the same year and moving a sliver of Republican  Bill Jackson's Senate district into Richmond County (in an effort to neutralize Democrat Sen Hardie Davis' power), they may well decide that federal intervention is necessary and step in after all. This would of course leave local candidates for the commission and school board uncertain about exactly what districts they would be running in and when the election may be held.

So who's really to blame for this mess? Some people may want to point the finger at Commissioner Jerry Brigham who first voted for map-3R in the ad-hoc committee and then a week later started an all out assault to defeat it. But if there's one person who deserves most of the blame it is Mayor Deke Copenhaver.

The Mayor has few opportunities to cast a tie breaking vote, but  he could have been the deciding vote to endorse the  redistricting map at the Dec. 6, 2011 commission meeting. Instead he was at the beach. The Mayor didn't make his position supporting the redistricting map known until after the vote was taken. The Mayor should have stated his position before going on vacation, encouraging commissioners to approve the map in a show of unity as was done a week earlier by the ad-hoc committee. Doesn't the Mayor always like to present himself as The Unity Mayor  who can bring the commission together? Well here was his opportunity, and he was missing in action.

When certain commissioners blocked approval of the map a second time, the Mayor should have made good on his promise to sign a letter of support for map-3R. It would have been difficult for members of the local legislative delegation to block map-3R with it's signed endorsement from the Mayor and 5 commissioners, including  unanimous approval from the ad-hoc redistricting committee charged with drawing the map.

The fact is, Mayor Deke Copenhaver could have made the difference; he could have been the key to bring the commission together, and he failed to do so. Instead, in typical fashion, the Mayor rode the fence and played both sides. He caused the process to stall and have it nearly taken over by the courts. If The Mayor was so instrumental in getting Map-2R passed at the last minute, then why didn't he come forward earlier in support of map-3R... a map he said he would have voted for and endorsed? It appears that the conspiracy theorists may have been right about Deke's real motives over redistricting from the very beginning. He says one thing in public to appease one political faction and then does the exact opposite behind the scenes. Will the public and the local media hold him accountable this time?***


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