It’s a 20-mile drive from state Sen. Mike Crane’s home in Newnan to the farthest southern reaches of Fulton County.
But Crane and other non-Fulton Republicans are playing a big role in a debate over the county’s future. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found more than a third of the people representing Fulton in the General Assembly live outside the county. That’s far more than the proportion of out-of-county lawmakers representing Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett.
And it’s no accident. In 2011 Republicans redrew legislative boundaries to gain control of Fulton’s delegation. Now Georgia’s largest county, where most residents are minorities and where Democratic President Barack Obama won 64 percent of the vote in November, has a white Republican majority in the General Assembly.
That majority plans to make big changes to a county government that has endured botched elections, jail overcrowding and complaints about dubious tax liens. Republicans say the county also spends too much money and is unresponsive to their constituents.
Among other things, Republicans have introduced bills to cut deeply into the county’s property tax revenue, to make it easier to fire employees and to redraw County Commission districts in a way that gives Republicans a chance at winning a majority.
Fulton Democrats say the influx of Republican lawmakers has paved the way for measures that most county residents find unpalatable. Among them: a proposal to double the county’s property tax homestead exemption to $60,000. County officials say it would gut funding for Grady Memorial Hospital, libraries, senior programs and other popular services.
They also decry the moves as a racist power grab.
“You have a bunch of white Republicans who just resent African-American political power and control over resources,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “They’re willing to do any and everything to take away African-American political power.”
North Fulton Republicans say they’re trying to reform a dysfunctional county government. Though they’re not likely to realize their longtime dream of breaking away from Fulton and re-creating Milton County, they may be able to make Fulton more consistent with their approach to government.
“We can’t get Milton,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “But, by gosh, we’ll do what we can to make our own county more efficient.”
None of it would have been possible without the redistricting that allowed Republicans to gain control of Fulton’s legislative delegation.
Though state law leaves much of the governance of the county to the locally elected Board of Commissioners, Fulton’s legislative delegation can dictate some of the details and limit the commission’s power through bills called “local legislation.”
Until this year, Democrats held a 14-8 majority of Fulton County’s seats in the House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate. But in 2011 the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew House and Senate districts across the state based on 2010 census data.
Now Republicans enjoy a 13-12 edge in Fulton County House seats and a 7-4 majority in the Senate. To accomplish that, they extended districts into Fulton that previously had not included the county.
As a result, 13 of 36 state legislators whose districts now include a piece of Fulton live elsewhere. Four live in Cobb County. Two each live in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fayette counties. Others live in Cherokee, Coweta and Forsyth. Eleven of the 13 lawmakers who live outside Fulton are Republicans.
“It just seemed like it was a goal to have a (Republican) majority there, and they’re obviously making use of that majority now,” said Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint, a redistricting expert.
Crane lives the farthest from Fulton County. His 28th District includes Coweta and Heard counties and parts of Carroll and Troup counties. It also includes the southwestern tip of Fulton. One measure of his district: Last year Crane, an incumbent who ran unopposed for re-election, received 60,129 votes — only 835 of them from Fulton.
Though he lives in Newnan now, Crane said he’s lived or worked in Fulton for half his life. He said he can do a good job of representing the part of the county in his district because it’s similar to Coweta.
“That part of Fulton County is very rural still,” he said.
State Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, also saw his district extended into Fulton. He got 11,699 votes from DeKalb in the last election and 4,342 from Fulton. Though he lives in DeKalb, he works in Fulton and says he doesn’t have any problems representing it.
“I’ve not had any trouble communicating with my constituents on either side of the (county) line,” Jacobs said. “It seems to be going swimmingly.”
It’s not uncommon for legislative districts to cross county lines. But Fulton has a higher share of out-of-county representatives than other metro Atlanta counties. Thirty-six percent of Fulton’s representatives live outside the county, compared with 28 percent in Gwinnett, 15 percent in Cobb and 9 percent in DeKalb.
“These people don’t come to Fulton County to get elected,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “They get their votes in other counties. Their authority is illegitimate.”
In 2011 Democrats threatened to challenge the new legislative districts under the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits redistricting and other election changes that dilute minority voting power. But the U.S. Department of Justice approved Georgia’s new districts later that year, and Democrats have not followed through on their challenge.
Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said the party ultimately concluded a court fight would be costly and difficult to win.
Swint, the Kennesaw State professor, said Democrats don’t have much to complain about. He said when they ran the Legislature in the 1990s they were “gerrymandering (districts) like crazy.” And he said the new Republican districts appear to comply with federal laws governing the population and demographics of political districts.
“The numbers are really on their side,” Swint said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for them to play politics.”
Crane said Fulton will benefit from the quality and principles of the people added to its delegation.
“Give us a little time,” he said. “We’ll prove it to you.”
AJC AT THE GOLD DOME
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offers the largest and most experienced team covering this year's legislative session. Today, we continue our look at how legislative efforts to address Fulton County problems are faring.