While many people are enjoying vacations with family, Georgia State Senator John F. Kennedy has spent most of his summer traveling the four corners of the Peach State.
He and fellow lawmaker State Rep. Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) listened to scores of Georgians discuss their concerns about the upcoming redistricting process, a crucial decennial duty that is a fundamental step of democracy. Kennedy chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee. Rich chairs the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee.
The pair have held 10 hearings since June. The last one is at 5 p.m. tonight in Martinez, a town just north of the Augusta National Golf Club.
Atlanta Civic Circle caught up with the traveling attorney and lawmaker to hear what he’s assessed from the public hearings. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
Q. What have you learned from the hearings?
A. Folks provided us with some good substantive information about things that are unique to their district. For example, how certain areas, whether it be counties or cities associated with counties, want to be perhaps within the same district because of commonalities they have. We’ve learned a lot about communities of interest around the state, and trying to maintain that. We’ve also heard from folks about the desire for a process where there’s input, much like we’re providing with the town hall meetings and transcript transparency with regard to that flow of information that we’re receiving from folks.
Q. How were the sessions that you’ve had so far? Were they helpful?
A. Yeah, they were very helpful. I mean that’s why we held the meetings. We wanted the public to give us input. We wanted to hear whatever the concerns are. Big, small geographic communities of interest whatever it was that folks wanted to share with us. That was the purpose of us going around the state. Both of those concerns are general to the redistricting process and then we’ve heard some specific comments that are unique to the geographic areas and home areas of folks who came to see us.
Q. Were there concerns about possible gerrymandering happening?
A. We heard from folks who had concerns about gerrymandering and looked at past maps. There were discussions, in particular, about what happened in the 2001 maps when the Democrats were in control. The maps were ultimately challenged. They found that they had to be revised because during that cycle they had been gerrymandered so badly by the Democrats in 2001 that there were significant problems in 2011 when the Republicans submitted the maps to the Obama White House. In fact, they passed the test. But folks have different viewpoints and as you would expect — most people speaking were concerned about that as part of the process and asked that those concerns be taken into consideration, which of course we will.
Q. Were there any questions, concerns that stood out?
A. We were not there to ask the public questions or answer questions. We were there to give everyone time to make their comments.
Q. Will you be in the room, so to speak, when the map-drawing and redistricting process takes place?
A. Well, certainly as chairman of the Senate Redistricting and Reapportionment Committee I will be in the room, so to speak. I will be very involved in the process.
Q. What do you hope to learn from Thursday’s release of the census data? Will the data help Georgia and other states get going on the redistricting process which will be on a very short timeline?
A. I certainly hope that the data that comes in is detailed enough, and in a useful format, so that we can then start about the business of knowing where the population numbers are sufficient. We can start working on redistricting and coming up with new maps. New maps are a product of and a result of population changes. So, to talk about the details of how that might look or work out, you’ve got to know the numbers, right? That’s of course what we’re hoping to get. It’s my understanding that the data is going to come from the Census Bureau in two batches. The data that comes in Thursday and then the data that will come in late September. I’m told the late September data is in a format that will be more consumable and understandable for most of us. That notwithstanding, it is my hope that the data we get this week will be largely understandable by folks who are having to work with it like me who are not Census data experts.
Q. My understanding is that Thursday’s batch is not going to be very user-friendly, which means that further shortens the time for the redistricting process and building maps. Is that a concern?
A. It is a concern. It’s something I really shouldn’t comment on because we’re kind of speculating on what this data is going to look like. I don’t know. If I did, I could tell you where I thought it might be good or where it might be deficient. You’re used to the term user-friendly. That’s a good one. I don’t know how user-friendly it’s going to be and I suppose no one does until we see it.
Q. When will the special legislative session on redistricting start?
A.We don’t know yet when the special session will occur pursuant to the governor calling us into a special session.
Q. Is that likely to be in November?
A. That has not yet been said. It’s really a little early to speculate when it could be. It could be November. It could be sooner. It could be later. I have no way of knowing yet. We obviously are going to be in a real compressed time frame.
You can tune in to tonight’s hearing, which begins at 5 p.m., at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Martinez here.