Central Louisiana could undergo major political changes during redistricting

Black residents lobby for two minority congressional districts in Louisiana

By: - November 10, 2021 1:49 pm
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The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

Central Louisiana — including Alexandria and the surrounding region– is at risk of potentially losing its current congressional representative and seeing its legislative seats move farther south during the state’s upcoming political redistricting process. But local residents are divided over whether the political changes would be a step in the right direction. 

The Louisiana Legislature’s governmental affairs committees held a public meeting about the redrawing of the state’s political boundaries at LSU-Alexandria Tuesday night. It was the fourth of 10  hearings the committees are holding around the state on political redistricting. 

At the Alexandria meeting, many white elected officials from local government emphasized to lawmakers that they want to retain much of their current representation, particularly freshman U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow, a Monroe Republican whose district stretches to Alexandria and down to the North Shore area.

Leave us alone alright? We like things the way they are,” Gail Wilking, mayor of the Town of Ball, told lawmakers Tuesday. “Did you get my message? Leave us alone.”

But Black people who testified Tuesday advocated for an overhaul of Louisiana’s congressional map — one that would include two majority Black congressional districts.  

Only one of Louisiana’s six current congressional districts — District 1 that covers New Orleans and parts of Baton Rouge — is made up of mostly Black residents, though a third of the state’s population identifies as Black. 

“Here in Alexandria, Black voters have no opportunity to elect their candidates,” because of the way the congressional lines are currently drawn, said Jared Evans, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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Evans said his organization has submitted seven proposed maps to the lawmakers based on the most recent census data that would create two majority Black congressional districts. Six of the seven maps would put parts of Alexandria and Central Louisiana into one of those two majority Black seats, he said.

The League of Women Voters of Louisiana — which advocates for civic engagement and voting rights — is also advocating for the creation of a second majority Black congressional district. The league’s state board unanimously voted to back a request to create two such congressional seats earlier this yearM. Christian Greene, vice president of the organization, told lawmakers Tuesday night.  

The request comes at a time when Louisiana’s population is becoming more diverse. From 2010 to 2020, Louisiana’s overall population grew by 2.7 percent, but the number of residents identifying as white declined.

In 2020, the number of people identifying as white dropped 6.3 percent — by 173,500 people — from 10 years ago, said William Blair, the Louisiana Legislature’s demographer, Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Black population outpaced the state’s overall growth by rising 3.8 percent, by 56,200 people.

The number of people who identified as Asian, American Indian and Hispanic also grew significantly, though those communities still make up a relatively small percentage of the state’s population. While 33 percent of state residents identify as Black, only 4.25 percent identify as Hispanic, the next largest minority population, according to information provided at the hearing.

Louisiana’s significant drop in its white population may have happened, in part, to a change in the U.S. Census data collection, Blair said. The federal government made it easier in 2020 to identify a person’s race as “Other” on the form than it was in 2010. And the number of people identifying their race as “Other” has exploded, from 1.8 percent to 5.6 percent. The category in Louisiana from 2010 to 2020 had an uptick of 180,447 people.

The politics of creating a second majority Black congressional district in Louisiana is also difficult because the process is controlled by conservative, White, Republican lawmakers in the Louisiana Legislature. 

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The two legislators leading redistricting efforts, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, and Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, have expressed an interest in running for statewide office. They don’t have much of an incentive to potentially anger the Republican base in any area of the state by replacing a local Republican congressman’s district with one that favors a Democrat. 

Political districts are also not supposed to be drawn exclusively on the basis of race, though as a practical matter, race is often a major factor in the drawing of political lines at all levels of government.

The issue of flipping a Republican-leaning district to a Democratic-leaning district could also be complicated  by who might be at risk for losing their job. North and Central Louisiana have been losing population for decades, yet still retain two  of the six congressional seats, represented by Letlow and U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Shreveport.

Combining those two seats — or creating a new Democratic-leaning seat — would put either Letlow or Johnson at risk for losing their position. Letlow is the newest member of the Louisiana delegation, but also the first and only Republican woman that Louisiana has sent to Congress. 

Letlow ran for Congress after her husband, Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, died suddenly of COVID-19 at the end of last year before he could take office.

Some Republicans are not enthusiastic about potentially redrawing the district lines in a way that would oust the highest-ranking Louisiana woman, who is a widow,  in state or federal office after she has served less than one term. 

State and federal law requires Louisiana political districts to be redrawn once every 10 years to reflect population shifts within the state. Louisiana’s new political boundaries will affect seats in Congress, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission, Louisiana Senate, Louisiana House and possibly the Louisiana Supreme Court.  

The legislators must draw Louisiana’s congressional seats, such that they are as equal in population as possible. 

Currently, Southeastern Louisiana congressional districts 1 and 6 — which are represented by Steve Scalise and Garret Graves — are overpopulated. Districts 4 and 5 in North and Central Louisiana — represented by Johnson and Letlow — are underpopulated.

Central Louisiana could also lose Louisiana House and Senate seats. Legislators are required to redraw statehouse lines such that they are within 5% of the ideal population for each district.

Almost all of the Central Louisiana parishes lost population from 2010 to 2020 and no parish in the area saw its local population grow over the last decade, according to legislative staff.

All state Senate seats in Central Louisiana are underpopulated as they are currently drawn, but Senate District 31 — occupied by Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches — has lost the most population of any Senate seat in the state. The rural district needs to grow by 11 percent to meet the new population requirements. It currently covers parts of Sabine, Natchitoches, Rapides, Bienville, Red River, Grant and Winn parishes.

Most of the Louisiana House seats in the central region are also underpopulated. Districts 21 (Travis Johnson), District 26 (Lance Harris) and District 28 (Daryl Deshotel) need to gain the most residents in the area. They are at least 10 percent underpopulated. 

Fewer seats in Congress and the Louisiana Legislature would mean less political influence — and possibly less resources for Central Louisiana, which is why local government officials are advocating for keeping as many districts as possible.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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