In Gwinnett, local redistricting sparks debates about changing demographics and politics

In 2018, Marlene Fosque made history. Voters elected her the first black person to serve on the Gwinnett County commission in its 200-year history.

Two years later, Gwinnett County voters turned the entire county commission to Democrat.

For the first time, all commissioners were people of color.

“Gwinnett County is the most diverse county in the state of Georgia and the southeastern United States,” Fosque says. “So what that says is that people have changed. The change is not already coming for him, it is already here.

So it came as a surprise to Fosque when Republicans in the Georgia legislature ditched the redistricting map drawn by county officials and swapped it with their own map.

Typically, local authorities draw local maps after the census, and then the legislature rubber stamps them. In this new republican map, the territory represented by Fosque has been redrawn. It now includes the northern part of the county which is whiter and more Republican-friendly, packing in more voters of color in other districts.

State Rep. Sam Park helped lead Democrats’ efforts to stop that map.

“It really dilutes the political power of Gwinnett voters from the Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities, and it undermines their freedom to ultimately vote for the elected officials of their choosing,” Park said.

At Paris Baguette, a Korean bakery near the Gwinnett neighborhood of Park where you can get sesame tapioca bread and passion fruit mochi donuts, Park says Gwinnett County has steadily grown and to diversify.

When Park ousted a Republican for his Statehouse seat in 2016, he became the first Asian American Democrat elected to the Georgia legislature.

For years, Gwinnett sent mostly Republicans to the state legislature. In 2018, the majority of Gwinnett lawmakers were Democrats. Park says that’s why the Republican-controlled legislature is intervening.

“It’s, ultimately, driven by a lot of fear being nurtured by people who are concerned that maybe Gwinnett’s shifting demographics are now being reflected in elected officials at the state and local levels,” Park says.

Republicans say that is not true.

State Rep. Bonnie Rich is one of Gwinnett County’s last remaining Republicans in the Legislative Assembly. She says the county map drawn by GOP lawmakers is fairer and ensures rural voters in the county are represented in their local government.

“My constituents come to me and they tell me they have no voice and no seat at the table,” Rich said during the only legislative hearing on the Republican-drawn maps.

The rich and other Republicans are adamant – it has nothing to do with race. Gwinnett County resident Michelle Frost spoke at a hearing, supporting the Republican map.

“I feel like I live in a neighborhood that’s the box of Crayola crayons, the 64 colors, and that’s my favorite life,” Frost says. “It’s not a conservative-liberal thing. It’s a people business. So we really have to pay attention to people and everyone has to have a voice.

District lines for the Gwinnett County Commission in 2021 (left) and 2022 (right). (Maps courtesy of Gwinnett County)

Republican House Speaker David Ralston was candid. He says elections have consequences. The legislature is controlled by Republicans, and the legislature has the final say on redistricting maps.

Yet the Voting Rights Act prohibits drawing constituencies that dilute the voting power of minorities.

“Untangling race and politics is one of the hardest things for the courts to do, and it’s especially difficult in the south where race and politics overlap to a very large extent,” says Michael Li, redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Li says Gwinnett County is a microcosm of how Georgia and other parts of the country deal with changing demographics and political power.

“Some of the biggest battles around redistricting this cycle are going to be fought in the rapidly changing suburbs of the country, especially the southern suburbs,” Li said. “Where both suburban politics have changed, but also the suburbs have diversified.”

Governor Brian Kemp eventually signed the Gwinnett County maps redrawn by Republican lawmakers. Litigation is possible, but the elections are approaching.

Gwinnett Democrat Marlene Fosque acknowledges that the only way forward will now be to run in her new commission district.

“Commissioners, we’re the main connectors to resources and access, to things like zoning that impact your neighborhood, so that’s huge,” she says.

Fosque says it’s important that Gwinnett voters see themselves reflected in the county commission, so she will continue to fight to keep her place at the table.

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