State Sen. Edward Price, D-Gonzales, speaks during a Feb. 2, 2022, meeting of the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee. Lawmakers have started a 20-day redistricting session at the State Capitol. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
After weeks of working to build consensus around a new Louisiana Senate district map, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, finds himself squaring off against a competing proposal backed by 11 of his Democratic colleagues.
Cortez, the Louisiana Legislature’s most powerful lawmaker, had been meeting with state senators from both parties for weeks in an effort to reach a compromise over the Senate map ahead of the lawmaker’s special session on redistricting.
Lawmakers thought the Senate proposal would be the least contentious they would consider over three-week redistricting session, given all the discussion about it beforehand,
Then, Senate Democrats filed a competing proposal Monday.
“I didn’t see it until last night, and I didn’t know it was coming,” Cortez said in an interview Wednesday.
Senate Bill 17, carried by Sen. Ed Price of Gonzales, diverges from Cortez’s proposal in two significant ways. It would add two more majority-Black districts to the Senate, and it does not move a Senate district from Shreveport to the Northshore.
Senate Bill 1, Cortez’s map, is still the strong favorite to make it all the way through the redistricting process. Republicans make up two-thirds of the Senate and almost two-thirds of the House of Representatives.
But Price’s map has an outside shot at appeal beyond the Democratic Caucus.
The Price proposal keeps District 37, currently held by Republican Sen. Barrow Peacock, in the Shreveport area. Northwest Louisiana lawmakers in both parties are unhappy about losing a district to the southern portion of the state in Cortez’s proposal.
“Whether or not the vote is going to be there [to pass the map], we’ll have to see,” Price said in an interview.
Price said retention of the northwest Louisiana seat was a coincidence. He filed the map not because it kept a seat in the Shreveport area, but because it was the easiest way to increase minority representation in the Senate.
Civil rights groups have been calling for the Louisiana Legislature to increase the number of its majority-Black districts in both chambers. Since political districts were last redrawn in 2010, the percentage of people identifying as a racial or ethnic minority has grown to over 40 percent of the state’s total population.
More specifically, the proportion of Louisiana residents who identify as white has decreased 6% in the last decade, and the Black population – Louisiana’s largest minority – has increased 4%.
Cortez’s proposal maintains the status quo for majority-Black districts in the Senate, keeping the number at 11 out 39 seats. Price’s map calls for 13 seats to be majority-Black.
The Democrats gain two seats by flipping the endangered Shreveport Senate district, held by Peacock, from majority-white to majority-Black. They also convert Senate District 17, held by Republican Rick Ward of Port Allen, into a majority-Black district.
Both Ward and Peacock are serving their third consecutive Senate term and cannot run for reelection.
Peacock declined to comment on either Senate proposal.
Ward said he wasn’t concerned about his seat shifting into a majority-Black district, though he worried the makeup of the proposed district spanned too many different types of communities, from extremely rural to urban. It might make the district difficult to represent, he said
Black Democrats, including Price, asked Cortez why he didn’t increase majority-Black districts in his proposal. Louisiana’s population is 33% Black, but majority-Black districts account for only 28% of the Senate seats on Cortez’s map.
Cortez said he didn’t believe that creating additional majority-Black districts would necessarily result in better chances for Black politicians to get elected. Splitting the Black population across more districts could “dilute” the Black community’s vote, and potentially result in a less diverse Senate, he said.
Price’s proposal shows that isn’t necessarily the case.
The proportion of Black residents in most of the existing majority-Black Senate seats would be similar under either Cortez’s initial proposal or Price’s map.
Price’s proposal only causes the Black population to drop significantly in District 15 (74% to 61%), held by Sen. Regina Barrow of Baton Rouge, and District 39 (61% to 55%), held by Sen. Gregory Tarver of Shreveport. In both cases, the districts would maintain a solid Black majority population, even at the lower threshold Price proposes.
Cortez also alleged that creating new majority-Black districts would necessitate gerrymandered maps that don’t keep communities of interest together – a stipulation of redistricting laws. He criticized Price’s map for having wonky political lines.
Price’s map draws District 31, represented by Sen. Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches, with a hook that wraps around District 29, represented by Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria. Its version of District 22, represented by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, would span the Atchafalaya Basin, Cortez said.
Price’s map would also have political ramifications that Republicans might want to avoid. If there were 13 majority-Black districts, Republicans would probably lose their two-thirds majority in the Senate. Some legislation, such as constitutional amendments, takes a two-thirds vote to pass.
There’s also a sense that moving a senate seat from northwest Louisiana to the Northshore is the fair thing to do. Every single senate district in northwest Louisiana is underpopulated, and Caddo saw the state’s largest population drop (17,000) of any parish. Meanwhile, the Northshore and Baton Rouge suburbs saw large increases in residents.
Still, Chris Kaiser with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said his organization would sue the Legislature if it approved Cortez’s original map. Kaiser said he doesn’t think the proposal meets federal voting rights standards for minority representation.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear to be approaching redistricting with an eye toward that lawsuit.
Democrats expect Price’s Senate map to die relatively early on in the redistricting process, but they needed to propose an alternative plan in order to strengthen the ACLU of Louisiana’s lawsuit prospects.
Cortez is also anticipating a lawsuit over the Senate plan, calling legal challenges “part of the process.”
“Plenty of people want the judicial branch to draw the maps,” he said.
Louisiana’s Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to vote on the proposed Senate maps this week. Cortez said more tweaks need to be made to his proposal before it comes up for consideration.
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