Bookman: How far will GOP state lawmakers go to use threatened power to extend power?

November 23, 2021 1:00 am

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that a proposal by a GOP state lawmaker to remake local governing boards in Gwinnett County is part of a broad movement to change long-held rules now that Democrats are gaining political power. The 2021 special session ended Monday with a small scale Sine Die, leaving the Gwinnett overhaul and politically charged local skirmishes for next year. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Change occurs very slowly, and then all at once. Certainly, that’s been the experience of Republicans in Gwinnett County. The suburban Atlanta county that had long been dominated by the GOP has almost overnight become Democratic. In the space of four years, for example — just one presidential election cycle — the county commission has gone from completely Republican to completely Democratic.

So if you’re a Gwinnett Republican, how do you respond to that change?

People being people, you might be tempted to use what power you still have to extend that power as long as possible, but to what degree? How far are you willing to go? As we’ll see, that’s a question being asked not just in Gwinnett but all across the country.

If you’re state Sen. Clint Dixon, Republican from Gwinnett, the answer is that he’s willing to go pretty damn far. In the special redistricting session of the state General Assembly, Dixon introduced far-reaching legislation that would abolish the current four-member board of county commissioners and replace it with a nine-member board, with those nine new districts drawn to be friendlier to Republican candidates. In addition, school board races that were partisan as long as Republicans were popular in Gwinnett would become nonpartisan now that Democrats are ascendant.

Ordinarily, such a drastic change would not be possible. Under legislative rules that have stood for decades, through Democratic and Republican dominance, changes to local government structure can’t be approved without support of the local legislative delegation, and the Democrats who now run Gwinnett would refuse that permission. But in the interest of maintaining power, Dixon and his supporters have proposed to discard that rule, using their control of the General Assembly as a whole to override the local delegation and push through these changes.

For the moment, that’s not going to happen. Earlier this week, Dixon withdrew his legislation from consideration in this special session, although we are likely to see it reappear in some form in the regular session that begins in January.

The 2022 General Assembly will also be asked to deal with a bill being pushed by Buckhead conservatives that would allow that wealthy neighborhood to secede from the City of Atlanta. Such a step would set an exceedingly dangerous precedent throughout Georgia, encouraging wealthier areas to withdraw their tax base, talent and resources from the cities of which they have long been a part. the Again, local Buckhead legislators strongly oppose the change, but again, in violation of longstanding rules and practice, Republican leaders from outside the area – people with no apparent dog in the fight — are pushing to enact the change.

What we’re seeing in Buckhead and Gwinnett are smaller-scale examples of a phenomenon also apparent on the national scene. They represent an attempted renegotiation and in many cases a repudiation of longstanding social, economic and political contracts by people who no longer feel well-served by them. It’s not all that much different from the increasing if still ludicrous talk of secession by states and groups of states, in some cases coyly prodded along by top elected officials, and in even more extreme cases by loose talk of civil war

Increasingly, people who have long held the reins of power see the institutions, arrangements and understandings that for generations legitimized their exercise of power suddenly being used by new groups of people to challenge that power, to acquire and exercise power of their own. For many, that has proved deeply unsettling.

As we witnessed in Washington, for some it is so unsettling as to lead them to abandon democracy itself. Yes, I know, those who assaulted the Capitol and who pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally throw out election results from certain states have claimed to be defending elections and democracy, not subverting them. But let’s be serious: Coup plotters all over the world have always justified their actions by claiming to be victims of a stolen election, even when, as in this case, there is absolutely no evidence to support that claim.

You can even view the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial in south Georgia through that lens. Defendants in that case believed themselves to be acting in accord with the longstanding understandings and racial codes of that community, and indeed, the refusal of two separate district attorneys to see anything wrong in Arbery’s death testifies to just how engrained that understanding had been. It is still remarkable to me that the incriminating video that broke the Arbery case open was made public by supporters of the defendants, because from their point of view, the video proved the violence justified. It is only when that video reached a larger audience, where those understandings did not hold, that its true meaning was appreciated.

I don’t mean to equate the horrors of the Arbery tragedy to the political machinations in the state Legislature, because they are very different things. But I do suggest that they may share a common source. The renegotiation of power within a community, nation or society never goes smoothly or sometimes even peacefully. But throughout that difficult process, the civic institutions and relationships created to defuse such tensions should be treated as precious assets to be defended rather than burdens to be cavalierly discarded.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.