The Republican-driven local redistricting train rolled on in Georgia’s state House on Thursday, pushing through new county commission and school board maps in Augusta-Richmond County and making school board elections nonpartisan in Gwinnett County despite the opposition of local Democrats, who hold majorities in local governments in both counties.
Senate Bill 369, which makes Gwinnett County school board elections nonpartisan, passed 95-61.
The House voted 97-62 on Senate Bill 437, which redraws Fulton County commission lines over the objections of most House Democrats, although Senate Democrats supported the deal.
All four measures go to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.
Lawmakers have already pushed through a map redrawing the Gwinnett County Commission to ensure a Republican-leaning district, and maps redrawing the Cobb County Commission and school board are pending in the state Senate. Republicans are also discussing redrawing lines in Savannah’s Chatham County. Democrats are decrying all the moves, saying that Republicans are using their majority to improperly override the wishes of local officials.
House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, told House members Thursday in advance of debate on the bills that the intervention of Republicans into local affairs was a “no less than a hostile takeover.”
Beverly said Republicans “continuously seek to justify wrong by using carve outs and exceptions, by changing the rules during a game, by moving the goalposts because you see that you are losing the game, by wielding your political power to remind us in the minority party, that your power politics supersedes principle, that your power politics supersedes the will of the people, because you say so.”
Rep. Mark Newton, an Augusta Republican, said lawmakers should approve the Republican-favored districts in Augusta because they split fewer precincts and preserved some neighborhoods. He said that it preserves six majority-Black districts on both the commission and school board.
“We all use the tools that we have to represent our districts,” Newton said.
But Democrats said the Republican map is being drawn to keep some white residents from being represented by Black officials, said Rep. Gloria Frazier, a Hephzibah Democrat.
“They’re trying to protect a small number of white residents preferably in district eight from having a Black commissioner,” Frazier said. “That’s what this is all about.”
The Gwinnett bill will shift the county’s school board from being elected Democrats and Republicans to running without party labels. Elections would be held in May, when nonpartisan offices are elected, instead of in November.
Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, said the measure would get politics out of schools and that the local Chamber of Commerce and Georgia School Boards Association. A number of conservatives have complained that the current majority-Democratic Gwinnett board has taken unwanted positions on mask mandates and racial issues, and also messed up by firing longtime superintendent Alvin Wilbanks a year before he was scheduled to retire.
“Parents from every corner of our county have expressed frustration at the hyperpoliticization of the school board in our county,” said Rep. Bonnie Rich, a Suwannee Republican.
Ten Gwinnett Democrats took the microphone to say variations of the same thing. “I am a duly elected member of the Gwinnett delegation. I do not support this bill and I am asking all of you to vote ‘No.’”
“You all are voting to change my school board,” said Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Snellville Democrat. “And you will be voting to change it without being a stakeholder in my community.”
Rep. Greg Kennard, a Lawrenceville Democrat, said it was hard not to believe Republicans were only intervening because they had lost power in Gwinnett County.
“The timing of this is so obvious,” Kennard said. “It was after these boards had flipped.”