Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Redistricting might become a legislative brawl, but coastal Louisiana could benefit. By Walter Pierce

In less than three months state lawmakers will gather for a special session to redraw Louisiana’s congressional and state House/Senate districts to conform with new census figures. This promises to be a contentious powwow for state districts as Republicans seek to solidify political gains, Democrats try to mitigate their declining clout and regional interests compete for influence.

Of equal interest will be the redrawing of Louisiana’s congressional districts. Because of a population decline since 2000, the state will forfeit one of its seven U.S. House districts. Thus far two proposals for how those districts should look have been floated — one from Louisiana Family Forum and a second from state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville — and others are likely to come. LFF’s plan is a blueprint for marginalizing Democrats and ensuring conservative Republican hegemony; the latter is fairer to everyone, and it offers a proposal that is gaining support among lawmakers south of I-10: creation of a district spanning from Cameron to Plaquemines parishes skirting the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana Family Forum and its political action committee, Louisiana Family Forum Action, have historically lobbied for initiatives that, for example, marginalize our lesbian-gay population and antagonize the state’s non-evangelicals. LFF has been a divisive force in Louisiana politics, and its redistricting proposal for the state’s six congressional districts maintains that tradition and deserves skepticism.

The LFF plan dilutes the state’s black voters, the vast majority of whom vote Democrat, by combining half of black-majority Orleans Parish with the overwhelmingly white, conservative St. Tammany and Washington parishes. The other chunk of Orleans Parish is combined in LFF’s proposal with the southeastern coastal parishes and the parishes skirting the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin.

I wouldn’t, however, call LFF’s plan a Trojan horse — we know there are Greeks huddled in its belly, ready with daggers and blood lust. And in fairness — if you can call it that — LFF’s plan appears to focus on neutering Democrats, not blacks, although in this increasingly polarized, conservative state, the overlap between Democrat and black is closing.

Harrison’s plan, in contrast, creates a district that comprises Orleans Parish, slices west through the river parishes and north to include part of East Baton Rouge — a majority black district. The U.S. Department of Justice, through the federal Voting Rights Act, is requiring Louisiana to maintain a black-majority district. Harrison’s plan seems to satisfy the VRA, although it can be fairly argued that Louisiana’s black population is still getting short shrift: 2009 census figures show very close to one third of the Bayou State’s population is black, so shouldn’t one third — two of six — of our redrawn House districts be black-majority?

Harrison’s plan is likely to run afoul of Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette who, as we learn in today’s news article by Jeremy Alford (“Getting Shored Up,” page 5, which also includes a map of Harrison’s proposal), is adamant that Lafayette and Lake Charles remain in the same district; Harrison’s plan divorces them, bumping Calcasieu north into a district — little changed from the current District 4 — comprising a column of parishes running north-south along the Texas border to Arkansas. If part of the rationale in redistricting is to consider geographic and cultural affinities, that is a shortcoming; Lake Chas has about as much in common with Shreveport as Lafayette has with Monroe.

But it’s a minor nit to pick; the population of coastal Louisiana from Cameron to Plaquemines has much in common — lots of Cajuns, Catholics, rig workers and fishermen, with urban pockets and college towns like Lafayette, Thibodaux and Houma. And most of this population is confronted with the ongoing ecological and economic cataclysm known as coastal erosion.

These are commonalities — exceptionalities would be a better word were it a word — that a representative in Congress can reflect and embrace.

Close to one third of the Bayou State’s population is black, so shouldn’t one third — two of six — of our redrawn House districts be black-majority?

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