Moultrie Observer

Local News

April 7, 2012

South Ga. lawmakers represent dwindling population

ATLANTA — When George Hooks was first elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1981, power and influence still came from the state’s Black Belt.

The rich, black soil stretching from Augusta to Columbus grew not only beloved crops like peaches and watermelons, but also produced some of the Georgia’s political legends, from President Jimmy Carter to ex-House Speaker Tom Murphy to father and son Govs. Eugene and Herman Talmadge.

But the region has seen its population decline for decades as the metro Atlanta area has swelled — and with it, the area’s legislative representation.

Some counties in southwest Georgia, including Early, Baker, Twiggs and Terrell, lost nearly a quarter of their residents in the past decade. Today, the Republican-dominated General Assembly is also heavily skewed toward north Georgia.

While south Georgia lawmakers still find themselves still in positions of power at the Legislature, it is unclear what effect the dynamic will have at the Capitol as they represent an increasingly dwindling number of constituents.

“It means you don’t have the numbers, which means you don’t have the votes,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “As you’ve seen a shift in population, you’ve slowly seen a shift in power. Coming from metro Atlanta used to be a handicap, because rural voters didn’t trust you.”

Now, Bullock points out, most of the voters are centered around the state capital. Hooks, now the region’s lone white Democrat in the Senate, said the trend doesn’t bode well for him or his rural colleagues.

“It’s going to severely hurt us, and I feel like to some degree, the state is going to be the loser for it,” he said.

During this year’s legislative session, the rural-metro divide reared its head a few times. The charter school constitutional amendment debate was lost on some legislators outside of metro Atlanta, where most felt the problem was concentrated.

“They swallowed hard,” President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, a Republican from Lyons, said of the vote on charter schools, which ultimately passed and will be put to voters this fall.

“You do have that divide,” he said. “The agenda might change in the future to try to accommodate those that have other views. The difference in being in leadership is it’s not just about your district; it’s about the state as a whole.”

Immigration was also divisive. Though many ultimately supported it, south Georgia lawmakers balked at the controversial immigration law that passed the Legislature last year, and several of them have since said it has a labor void left that is hurting farmers.

“Talking to my colleagues in metro Atlanta is like talking to a brick wall on that subject,” Hooks said. “If something really benefits metro Atlanta, and we feel it’s really beneficial to the state as a whole, we’ve been supportive of it. But it doesn’t work both ways. I don’t blame them; they just don’t understand.”

While Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston hail from the north Georgia towns of Gainesville and Blue Ridge, key legislative leaders still hail from below Interstate 20.

In the Senate, that includes Williams. The powerful Appropriations Committee chairman — responsible for helping craft the budget — is Jack Hill of Reidsville, and south Georgia lawmakers also chair the Agriculture, Ethics, Finance and Natural Resources committees.

In contrast to their urban colleagues, some of whom are only responsible for several neighborhoods, rural lawmakers often represent multiple counties. Their districts only grew last summer when the Legislature had to redraw political boundaries to adjust for the population shifts in the state.

All 256 members of the General Assembly are up for re-election this year.

Williams, elected to the Senate in 1998 when Democrats were still in charge of state government, said the GOP takeover of the last decade was largely due to rural lawmakers.

“Not until Republicans started winning out in the rural areas did we take the majority,” Williams said. “We cannot have a majority without them.”

Hooks said there’s a flip side to that coin.

“Georgia is blessed in one way, and not blessed in another,” Hooks said. “The urban legislators are now (represent) more than 60 percent of the state’s population that is centered in metro Atlanta.”

Getting bills beneficial to his area on the calendar is not the challenge.

“The hard part,” he explained, “is getting the number of voters needed to pass them.”

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