A coalition of civil rights groups joined the redistricting fray last week with its own proposed set of political maps.

The Unity maps were done to give lawmakers an example of new district maps that reflect the state’s growing racial diversity. The maps were created by

the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, and the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund

The maps, the coalition said, would give voters of color a chance to elect candidates of their choice “without partisan or racial gerrymandering,” which occurs when electoral districts are drawn to prevent racial minorities from electing their preferred candidate. Built into the coalition’s maps was a majority Latino/Hispanic district created in northern DeKalb County and western Gwinnett County.

Jerry Gonzalez

“It is one of the ways in which we can ensure Latino voices are protected in the redistricting process, but in collaboration with the other demographics that we’re working with,” GALEO Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez told Atlanta Civic Circle. “African American and Asian American communities are important in that mix as well. It’s been an ongoing conversation of how we build power in our communities for a long period of time.” 

It’s the first time the powerful Hispanic organization has taken such a visible step to ensure Georgia’s rapidly-growing Hispanic population has a say in how lawmakers reshape the state’s political boundaries for the next decade.

State lawmakers begin redrawing those political boundaries today. The process, which is expected to last until around Thanksgiving, will determine who goes to Congress and the state House and Senate. 

The maps are the most visible sign of political engagement, but Hispanic activists and organizations have been preparing for this redistricting season for a while:

The Latino Community Fund Georgia trained eight citizens to give testimony online and in person at public hearings on redistricting this past summer. Some gave their testimony in Spanish. They said translators and providing information about redistricting in other languages would help non-English speaking residents understand the political process. They also discussed how heavily Hispanic towns such as Gainesville need political representation that better reflects the community.

  • Last May, GALEO and LCF Georgia formed the Georgia Latino Redistricting Caucus to help residents become versed in the decennial legislative process. 
  • Other groups have hosted phone bank sessions, sent out texts and emails, and passed out brochures, trying to alert Hispanic constituents statewide about redistricting.

A lot of the redistricting process will occur behind closed doors and away from public view, making it hard for people to know if their concerns will be addressed before the final maps are unveiled.

“We would really love to see districts drawn that represent the communities in them,” LCF’s Civic Participation Manager Michelle Zuluaga told Atlanta Civic Circle. “We would love to see a more transparent process during this legislative special session.” 

By all calculations, real Hispanic representation for the foreseeable future will be an uphill climb.

  • Only three Hispanic people currently serve in the Georgia General Assembly. Republican State Sen. Jason Anavitarte (District 31), and Democratic House Representatives Zulma Lopez (District 86) and Pedro Marin (District 96). Atlanta Civic Circle reached out to all three, but they were not available at press time.

“The fact we have not even a handful [of Hispanic legislators] is very indicative of the lack of having representative districts,” former Georgia Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero told Atlanta Civic Circle.

Brenda Lopez Romero

Lopez Romero became the first Latina to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 2016. She lost her bid for Georgia’s 7th Congressional district in a runoff in August 2020 with Carolyn Bourdeaux who ultimately won the seat three months later.

“I can’t say that I’m optimistic [about the upcoming redistricting process], but what I will say is that you can’t draw yourself into power forever,” Lopez Romero said.

“Who we are in Georgia now and who we will be in 10 years is simply no longer aligned to how the districts may ultimately be drawn in 2021,” Lopez Romero said. “It’s very short-sighted for any political party in power to continue to try to hold on to power beyond their voter base. The lines in Georgia will catch up to those that reside here.”

Zuluaga isn’t holding out much hope for this redistricting cycle either.

“I don’t think we’re going to get that [equitable representation] without a fight,” Zuluaga said. “Unfortunately, here in Georgia, the reality is that everything is really just going to end up in litigation at some point.”

Zuluaga has spent hours on the road visiting communities and going to public hearings on redistricting.

“In a lot of our Latino communities, we’re still assimilating. It takes many generations to assimilate to a new system, to a new language, to a new culture,” she said. “I’m always kind of in this cultural limbo. Even though I am a white-passing person and I speak perfect English, there is still a lot for me to learn because my parents weren’t eligible to vote. So I have to learn everything myself.”

Given the rapid growth in Georgia’s Hispanic and Latin American population over the last decade, it’s not unrealistic to imagine the state having at least one majority Hispanic district; however that appears unlikely, observers said.

Consider Texas, where the governor recently approved new political maps. The maps added more majority-white districts, despite 95 percent of the state’s population growth coming from communities of color. The growth helped Texas pick up two more congressional seats. Nearly four in 10 Texans are Hispanic. People of color now make up nearly 60 percent of the state’s population.

Christopher Perlera

How Georgia’s new political maps ultimately turn out may be decided in court, political observers say. Maps like the ones offered by GALEO and the other civil rights groups may serve as a “template” for legal arguments, veteran consultant Christopher Perlera told Atlanta Civic Circle. Perlera is a government and community affairs consultant with Critical Point Consulting in Chamblee.

While creating equitable representation this redistricting session appears to be a long-shot, advocates aren’t giving up. And rightfully so. 

BY THE NUMBERS 

Since 2001, Georgia’s Hispanic population has surged to 1.1 million, accounting for one in 10 Georgians now.

  • In metro Atlanta, 10 counties account for 62 percent of all Latino voters in the state.

DIVERSE VIEWS

Georgia’s Hispanic population includes people whose backgrounds extend to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Those various cultures represent diverse political views.

During the 2018 gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, for example, there was a strong political divide.

“Younger voters tend to skew Democrat and older tend to skew Republican, mostly on traditional values, not necessarily some of the new kind of Trump or Republican values,” Perlera said.

Perlera is the son of refugee immigrants from El Salvador where a 13-year civil war in the late 1970s led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians.

“If you ask my family about guns, they’ll tell you, ‘you’ll never take them while I’m alive.’ Because in my country, the government took them, killed us, and put us in mass graves,” said Perlera, a former Republican who is now an Independent. “So that is a very different reality from what we live in in the U.S., and it should not be misconstrued. At the same time, some of our older Hispanic voters are not necessarily as accepting of LGBTQ+ community members, even though our younger folks, including myself, are very used to being inclusive and supportive as allies.”

For that reason, both political parties can’t take the Hispanic vote for granted, Perlera said.

But, he added, “competition can be a good thing.” 

GROWING INFLUENCE

Hispanic advocacy and activist groups, politicians, judges, and entrepreneurs have become critical influencers in Georgia over the last two decades. 

“We’re building a bench of political talent,” said Perlera who lives in Chamblee which has a large Hispanic population. “[There’s] a lot of younger folks — dozens, which sounds like a small amount, but it used to be zero. The business and voter class of the Hispanic community is maturing to the point where we are building a substantive political class that’s capable of launching statewide campaign support. Congressional, judicial, city, mayoral, you name it.

“There’s a very strong emerging advocacy and political class of Hispanic professionals,” Perlera added. “Folks are going to be floored to see how quickly we’ve learned the game.”

AT A GLANCE

Hispanic population in Georgia: 1.1 million, up 32 percent from 2010. One in 10 Georgians is Hispanic.

The 10 metro Atlanta counties that account for 62 percent of Georgia’s Latino voters: Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton, DeKalb, Hall, Cherokee, Clayton, Whitfield, Forsyth, and Chatham

Registered Latino voters: 385,185 or 4.1 percent of Georgia’s total voters. That’s up 141,000 voters since 2016.

Georgia Latinos who voted in the 2020 presidential election: 160,000

Hispanic people in the Georgia General Assembly: Three. 

Source: U.S Census Bureau; “2020: The Georgia Latino Electorate Grows In Power,” a report from the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO); Latino Decisions; Ballotpedia 

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