Leaders say federal judges will draw new districts if lawmakers can't decide

07/03/2011 12:00 AM

07/03/2011 10:09 AM

Legislative leaders say a compromise map for the state's seven congressional districts must be completed by the end of August to avoid a panel of federal judges stepping in and doing the job.

That has put leaders and legislative staff into overdrive, trying to tweak proposed congressional maps for the Greenville and greater Charleston areas while also building support for a new 7th Congressional District, centered in Horry County and including the Pee Dee region.

Having failed to pass a redistricting plan last week, legislators will return to Columbia July 26 for another shot.

Unless a majority of S.C. House and Senate members approve a new map by about Labor Day, there may not be time for the state to deal with the inevitable resulting lawsuits and get the map approved by the U.S. Justice Department before the 2012 elections, when all U.S. House members will be up for re-election.

That could set the stage for federal judges to step in to do the job, taking power away from the General Assembly.

"We're not going to have any say if it goes to the judges," said state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens. "I'm hoping lawmakers will look at the overall, big picture of what's best for the whole state and not be so concerned about the parochial interests of their own backyard. We need to get this done. It's getting down to the wire."

Building a map that a majority can agree on will be difficult.

The S.C. House and state Senate thus far have failed to pass a common congressional redistricting plan, instead opting for competing plans.

Some Senate Republicans say they worry that the counties and communities they represent will be split into different congressional districts. There also is GOP disagreement on whether to center the state's new 7th Congressional District, the result of population growth, in the southeastern part of the state or along the North Carolina border.

While the Republicans who control the S.C. House and state Senate battle among themselves, legislative Democrats are sitting back.

Democrats say they would prefer judges draw the new maps instead of the Republican-controlled Legislature. Democrats hope the judges would create another congressional district that is majority African-American, a loyal constituency of the Democratic Party.

The state currently has one African-American majority district -- the 6th District represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia. It was drawn by the courts in 1992.

"At this point, they (Republicans) have cut the Democrats completely out of this (redistricting) process," said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. "They're trying to find a plan that Republicans can agree on and not what the entire body can agree on. And that's unfortunate because that will definitely lead to a lawsuit. You would think that South Carolina would learn based on its past history when it comes to redistricting."

Democrats are concerned at what they perceive to be a GOP attempt to pack as many African-Americans and other Democratic-leaning voters as possible into Clyburn's district, leaving the six remaining congressional districts sure-fire wins for Republicans, Jackson said.

"They have seven congressional districts, and Democrats only have a chance of getting elected in one," he said. "In a state that's one-third African-American and nearly half Democrat, how is that possible? Or fair?"

At least one person, Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the state Democratic Party, has said he will sue over the maps. Other groups are planning to sue too, Jackson said.

Republican legislative leaders are hoping they can appease enough of their GOP brethren to pass a compromise map that likely would:

Reunite portions of Dorchester and Berkeley counties with Charleston County in the 1st District. The Senate-passed plan puts the two counties in the new 7th District, anchoring the new congressional district in Beaufort County.

Create a new 7th District along the state's northeastern coastline, swinging through the Pee Dee, with Horry County its anchor.

Divide Greenville County among two congressional districts but keep most of the county's cities and towns in the 4th District. An initial Senate plan kept Greenville County whole in the 4th District but split adjacent Spartanburg County in ways that some Upstate lawmakers disliked so much that they bolted for the competing Beaufort-based 7th District.

A power struggle

At issue is power.

Every 10 years, lawmakers are required to use new Census data to redraw the state's political lines to reflect population shifts and growth.

Speculation has run high that several Senate and House members are trying to draw lines in ways that would allow them to launch a congressional bid in the new 7th District.

At least one, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said that is not true.

"If the new congressional district is centered in Beaufort County, I will not run for it," Davis said Friday. "I will run for re-election as Beaufort County's state senator in 2012. I am just starting to get some traction in the State House on things I care about ... and, right now, I can make more of a difference in Columbia than I could in D.C."

This year's redistricting fight is particularly rough and tumble because of the new 7th District.

The House approved a congressional map that put the district in the eastern part of the state, anchored by Horry County. State Senate leaders were ready to approve that plan.

But a surprise coalition of Republicans and Democrats -- frustrated at the map for a variety of reasons --voted to move the new district to the southeastern part of the state, anchored in Beaufort.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who led the rebel coalition, said a Beaufort-centered 7th District made more sense because it kept more counties whole within congressional districts and kept other "communities of interest" intact.

Annoyed at the unraveling of a Horry-centered 7th District, Senate Pro Tem Glenn McConnell promptly labeled Grooms and his unlikely Democratic allies "the Republicrats."

While a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators approved Grooms' plan, the overwhelmingly Republican House will not agree to it.

"The House won't go along with it," Sen. Martin said. "Let's hope we can reach a compromise with them."

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