Oedel: The perils of partisanship

February 24, 2013 

We all can see problems at the national level with overly partisan politics, including politicians who can’t talk across the aisle and political posturing that undermines problem-solving. Congress is stalemated on matters that seem to need immediate attention, like the sequester, deficit and debts, jobs and defense, entitlement reform and more.

Issues at the local level are different, but it’s still hard to see how partisanship helps. It’s an old saw that there’s neither a Republican nor Democrat way of collecting trash, setting traffic signals, answering a 911 call, teaching math or English, maintaining the parks, or filling a pothole.

So there’s some surface appeal to the Republican-initiated bill before the governor requiring nonpartisan elections for Macon-Bibb officials.

But the bill disguises deeper issues. A bigger partisanship problem for citizens is gerrymandering, on which Republicans aren’t giving an inch. Why should they? Gerrymandering is an essential tool for party entrenchment. District line-drawing in Georgia lies firmly in Republican-manipulated computer programs. That has pernicious effects for everyone, just as it would if Democrats drew the lines.

Most of Bibb County is represented in Georgia’s state Senate by two people, Republican Cecil Staton and Democrat David Lucas. Yet there’s little common ground between them. That’s by district design.

Last year, Lucas beat a more centrist incumbent, Miriam Paris and Staton almost got outflanked on the right by Spencer Price. Sure, Paris made key campaign blunders, and Price is more likeable than Staton. But those were just the tails on the dogs of the districts. Winning candidates in either district must watch their bases, not reach across the aisle. Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that we had one district combining both senate districts of Lucas and Staton, and that we elected two senators at large. Would either Lucas or Staton win? Probably not. We’d see more centrist candidates emerge and win, whether Republicans who could demand justice and touch black voters, or Democrats who could advocate fiscal responsibility and personal accountability all around. It’d be a very different game.

Despite former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s sensible plea to institute independent redistricting in Georgia, realists know that Republicans aren’t going to give up the keys to their kingdom.

So how do we make our admittedly-flawed system work as well as possible? One commitment that we might fairly expect from any elected leader is to keep his or her political promises. That’s why the bill requiring nonpartisan elections tastes so bitter to local Democrats, who make up Macon-Bibb’s majority.

An across-aisle deal on consolidation design was ditched by Republicans soon after balloting ended, and after Democrats later won district attorney and court clerk based largely on party brand.

When former state Sen. Robert Brown, a black Democrat, was reluctantly involved in conceptualizing a consolidated Macon-Bibb, he insisted on continuing with partisan primaries to capitalize on the Democrat brand. Republicans like Staton, meanwhile, wanted the sheriff to be chief law enforcement officer, rather than a police chief.

A political compromise was struck in which partisan primaries would continue indefinitely, while the sheriff would indefinitely assume sole leadership of a single law enforcement operation. That compromise design passed with an even larger margin in Macon than Bibb.

So when the Republicans went back on that deal soon after voters approved consolidation, it felt like dirty pool. Sure, Brown is dead and the Republicans may have the raw power to do it, so long as they can squeeze it by the U.S. Justice Department in its present role of “pre-clearing” changes in voting procedures that might diminish black political participation.

But the Republican reversal undermines trust across the aisle, and, more generally, public confidence overall. Forcing nonpartisan elections at this early juncture, before any implementation of consolidation, contradicted the deal that voters approved in July.

State Reps. James Beverly and Nikki Randall, black Democrats who supported consolidation, have special reason to feel used. They, and their constituents, won’t soon forget this episode.

Oedel was legal counsel both to former Sen. Robert Brown and former Gov. Sonny Perdue.

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