Louisiana redistricting session begins with late rush of maps, controversy for governor
The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).
The Louisiana Legislature convenes at 5 p.m. Tuesday to begin a redistricting session to account for population changes in the state since 2010. New boundaries for seats in Congress, the state House and Senate, on the Public Service Commission, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Louisiana Supreme Court are being revised as required by federal voting rights law.
The U.S. Census for 2020 shows Louisiana lost residents in northern, rural portions of the state, while some parishes in the southern half of the state saw increases. The largest percentage growth came in suburban parishes such as Ascension, St. Bernard and St. Tammany, while Orleans also saw a significant bump in its numbers from 2010.
Conventional wisdom indicates northern Louisiana will lose a few seats. The legislative leadership’s proposal for redrawing the state Senate map already moves one district, which Republican Sen. Barrow Peacock currently represents, from the Shreveport area to the Northshore. A more contentious process could play out when it comes to Congress and BESE, where voting rights advocates have pushed for more minority-majority districts.
Louisiana’s population is nearly 33% Black and over 40% racial or ethnic minorities.
Lawmakers had filed eight political redistricting proposals as of Tuesday morning. The first six were made public late Monday night, with some lawmakers saying they had not yet seen the maps.
Five of the bills deal with redrawing congressional districts – two from Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, and one each from Sens. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, and Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.
Hewitt’s proposal is backed by the legislative leadership and has the best chance of getting final approval.
Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has offered a map for the Louisiana Senate. Fields and Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, submitted Public Service Commission proposals. Stefanski is chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which steers the redistricting process.
This will be the third time working through the redistricting process for Fields, whose intermittent legislative career dates back to 1991.
“For a lot of these legislators, this will be their first time doing redistricting,” Fields said. “So it’s going to be a learning curve for a lot of them, but I think for the most part we get through it.”
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‘Pump the brakes’
The state Senate communications office shared a tentative timetable Monday showing the entire special session ending by Saturday. Keeping that schedule would mean lawmakers would have just five days to approve new political districts. The Legislature’s leaders haven’t explained why they will move at such an aggressive pace.
Lawmakers have until Feb. 20 to conclude the redistricting session.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said the legislative leadership might want to “pump the brakes” on the current schedule, especially with the Louisiana House maps still unfinished.
Advocacy organizations active in the redistricting process advised lawmakers against an aggressive schedule with little transparency. The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a local, nonpartisan think tank, recommended lawmakers and the public have ample time to vet any proposals coming forward.
Besides a small circle of people around Cortez and Schexnayder, lawmakers said heading into this week they had been mostly in the dark about what maps leadership is pushing could look like. They were limited to proposals for their own districts and the areas immediately around them.
“I have an idea of what my district looks like, what my precincts are,” House Republican Caucus Chairman Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said in an interview Friday. “But we’re only seeing microscopic views of the map.”
The governor’s role
Looming over the redistricting process is what role Gov. John Bel Edwards will play and whether a recent controversy will affect it. The governor has said he supports additional minority-majority districts for Congress and BESE seats, and he can veto any proposal advanced to his desk.
The Associated Press reported Friday that Edwards was made aware through a text message hours after Ronald Greene died in the custody of Louisiana State Police following a May 2019 vehicle pursuit near Monroe. Troopers initially claimed Greene had died of injuries from wrecking his car.
The governor offered no comment on the Black motorist’s death for more than a year until AP obtained state police video that showed troopers beating Greene. An autopsy verified Greene’s death was not attributed to the auto accident.
Edwards, who was in Washington, D.C., over the weekend for a National Governors Association conference, will hold a press conference to field questions about the Ronald Greene case. It’s scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, just 30 minutes before the redistricting session begins.
Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, said Edwards has to factor in future showdowns with lawmakers when deciding how heavy he exerts his influence on redistricting.
“If the governor decides to intervene forcefully, this would be a major crisis for his administration and set the tone for future conflict with the Legislature. The Legislature could override Edwards’ veto but is unlikely to do so.”
Republicans hold a majority in both state house chambers, but they don’t have the super majority needed for an override in the House.
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‘We’re not starting from a clean slate’
With or without a veto, the maps will also undergo scrutiny from civil rights organizations. They hope to not just retain the state’s current number of majority-minority districts, but expand on them, especially in Congress and on the state school board.
Civil rights advocates say at least two of Louisiana’s six U.S. House seats and three of BESE’s elected positions should be in majority-minority districts.
“We’re not starting from a clean slate. We’re actually starting from a place where we have lots to address with regard to minority representation,” said Alana Odoms, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.
The ACLU and other organizations might sue the state if they don’t find the new maps passed by the Legislature to be adequate. A similar lawsuit was recently successful in Alabama, where a federal court threw out the congressional map lawmakers in that state approved over lack of fairness to Black voters. Similar court cases are unfolding in a dozen other states.
BESE member Preston Castille, who represents the 8th District, said state school board maps should be redrawn more compactly in north Louisiana specifically to allow more persons of color and Latino voters have more representation in the region.
“It requires some maneuvering across north Louisiana to pick up pockets of those populations, but it’s very doable,” Castille said.
Three of BESE’s 11 members are Black. Two were voted in, and the governor appointed Thomas Roque in 2016.
“It’s clearly disproportionate when most of the time BESE only has about 18% minority representation on the board,” Castille said, referring to elected board members. “Given that we only get to do (redistricting) every 10 years. I think we do have an opportunity to be a little bit creative and to give a voice to more people in the state.”
Julie O’Donoghue, J.C. Canicosa, Wesley Muller and Greg LaRose contributed to this report.
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