Minority groups oppose bill aimed at diversifying Gwinnett’s board

When a state legislator filed a bill last month to expand Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners, he touted its potential to add diversity to a body that’s never had a non-white member.

But at least two local advocacy groups think the plan would do exactly the opposite.

Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat from Duluth, filed on March 9 a bill that would change the shape of the county’s four current commission districts while adding two new ones. The proposal was not voted on and will roll over to the General Assembly’s 2018 session.

The most vocal detractors of the bill have questioned the way the proposed new commission districts are drawn. But the legislator balked at that, saying the map is not “set in stone” and would create “some competitive districts” even if it was.

Jerry Gonzalez, director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, isn’t sold.

“This proposal would be retrogression,” he said. “It effectively dilutes minority representation in every conceivable way.”

‘A better chance’

Marin said that the General Assembly’s Reapportionment Office created the new district map at his request, and that the only instruction he provided was not to draw any current commissioners out of their home districts.

Gonzalez — whose Atlanta-based organization is already part of a lawsuit challenging the way Gwinnett County’s commission and school board districts are drawn — said that’s not good enough. “Incumbent protection” should be irrelevant in a majority-minority county that has struggled with diverse representation on its highest elected body, he said.

GALEO’s suit, filed in August and still being litigated, claims the current drawing of Gwinnett’s districts “unnecessarily divides Black, Latino and Asian-American citizens among the four single-member districts, preventing them from combining to form a majority in any district.”

It calls for the creation of at least one majority-minority commission district, either by re-drawing the existing districts or creating a fifth.

The Georgia NAACP is also a plaintiff in the suit. And the organization’s Gwinnett branch doesn’t like the new districts proposed under Marin’s plan either — although the bill as currently constructed would, in fact, create one district where black and Latino voters make up more than 50 percent of eligible voters.

“In Pedro’s proposal we believe that he and his team are proposing to have smaller [districts] that could potentially provide a better chance of electing a minority,” Gwinnett NAACP vice president Renita Hamilton Edmonson said, “but the voting population in those areas does not necessarily reflect the demographic population.”

In 2015, the most recent year from which demographic estimates are available, Gwinnett County as a whole was about 40 percent white; 28 percent black; 21 percent Hispanic; and 12 percent Asian.

The Reapportionment Office used 2010 census data to create the map for Marin’s bill. Overall, black and Latino voters made up about 41 percent of Gwinnett County’s voting age population in 2010.

According to the reapportionment office’s analysis, the voting age population of one of the new districts proposed under Marin’s plan — the re-shaped District 2, which would primarily cover the Norcross and Peachtree Corners areas — would be nearly 60 percent black or Latino.

In the other five proposed districts, black and Latino voters would make up about 27, 37, 37, 41 and 43 percent of eligible voters.

The Reapportionment Office’s analysis did not take Asian voters into account. Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a Gwinnett-based advocacy group, said it was still reviewing the data behind Marin’s bill and declined to comment for this story.

Gwinnett’s current Board of Commissioners is also opposed to Marin’s legislation — or at least its timing. Last month, Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash asked that any changes be put off until after the 2020 census, when district lines will already be tweaked.

‘Some competitive districts’

The dearth of non-white members on Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners has been a long-running storyline, one that existed even before the county officially became a majority-minority county in 2010. But it’s gained steam again in the wake of a scandal involving Commissioner Tommy Hunter, who in January called civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis a “racist pig” on Facebook.

A white commissioner, much less one who represents a district with one of Gwinnett’s largest black populations, making disparaging remarks about a civil rights hero proves the need for leaders with different backgrounds, anti-Hunter protesters have contended.

And opening the door for more diversity is indeed the goal of his legislation, Marin said. But politics have to be played too.

“When you write policy, you have to count your votes,” Marin said. “… For us to have something change in Gwinnett, I have to have 10 votes.”

Ten of Gwinnett’s 18 House members would need to sign the bill for it to be voted on next year by the larger House of Representatives. Marin said all seven Democratic representatives from Gwinnett have vowed to back the bill, and that four of the county’s 11 Republican representatives are currently “on the fence.”

Republican Rep. Buzz Brockway — who recently announced he’ll run for Secretary of State in 2018 — recently said that he’s in favor of at least getting public input on Marin’s proposal. That will be accomplished in a series of community townhall meetings that are in the works for sometime this fall.

Marin vowed that the townhalls will be bipartisan affairs. And that everyone’s thoughts will be considered.

“I would like to start a conversation,” Marin said. “And this has been a very good piece of starting the conversation.”

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