Drawing lines before counting voters

John Maginnis
March 3, 2010

Census workers begin fanning out this week across the New Orleans area for an early start to the decennial count that begins next month for the rest of the state and nation. Official figures won't be released until early 2011, and the Legislature will meet to draw new district lines about a year from now.

Yet legislative committees already have circled the state to hold reapportionment briefings, and one public official and an organization have even presented plans for redrawing congressional and state Senate districts.

In getting around the state, I have noticed a greater-than-usual interest among citizens in reapportionment this year. That's partly because the state's relatively flat population growth all but ensures Louisiana will drop from seven U.S. representatives to six, and voters and local officials are curious, even nervous, about in whose district they will land. Also, once the Census solves the mystery of how many people actually live in post-Katrina New Orleans, that will give a better idea of how many legislative seats that region will lose -- that's when the real fight begins.

Very delicate stuff indeed. House Speaker Jim Tucker recently described reapportionment as the most personal and agonizing of decisions legislators must make, especially when it comes down to choosing which of their colleagues aren't coming back.

So one might understand the umbrage taken by lawmakers to learn that one of their own, Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, would bring in outsiders, the social-conservative advocacy group Louisiana Family Forum, to tell the upper chamber how it should redistrict itself.

A few months ago, Family Forum caused a bit of a stir when it circulated its preliminary plan for redrawing the state's congressional districts, based on Census estimates. Guillory, who is African-American, then sought the group's advice on dealing with the potential elimination of minority Senate seats due to the New Orleans depopulation.

At the Capitol, to say the proposed remap went over like a lead balloon puts it lightly. The more diplomatic sorts, not looking to pick fights with the Christian right, called the plan premature and a potential distraction from the looming budget crisis.

Then there was Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, who told the Houma Courier, "They have no more business of directing legislation than we have in legislating religion."

Actually, Family Forum, like any interest group -- civic, business or religious -- has every right to lobby the Legislature on any public matter. It's just that no other interest groups or lobbyists in their right mind go near the Legislature when reapportionment is at hand.

"People asked us, 'What are you doing? Are you crazy?'" said Family Forum director Gene Mills, who nonetheless responded to Guillory's desire to see new minority districts drawn. Doing so, of course, would make adjoining districts, represented by Democrats, whiter and friendlier to conservative candidates, which fits Family Forum's agenda. The congressional and Senate maps were drawn up by former conservative legislator Dan Richey, who more recently directed the state's abstinence program. Guillory himself was a Republican before switching parties to run for the Legislature.

The organization would have better served its cause to have waited for the real numbers. Family Forum's congressional plan used dated population estimates that showed about 70,000 fewer New Orleans residents than even the most conservative current estimates, resulting in a merger of the Orleans-based 2nd Congressional District with Houma-Thibodaux in the 3rd, which defies reason and mathematics.

The Senate plan, though with more current estimates, collapses four New Orleans Senate districts into two, despite that the city's estimated population loss of about 120,000 only justifies its losing one.

Guillory's and Family Forum's efforts to create new minority seats outside New Orleans, however, are interesting, such as merging the Senate districts between Leesville and Alexandria in order to create an adjoining majority black district. That will be of particular interest to Family Forum's members in Central Louisiana.

Everyone has the right to an opinion, even in reapportionment. Yet lawmakers worry if it can get out of hand, as Gautreaux quipped, "Hey, I heard the Girl Scouts are coming out with a plan next."

Why not? Sounds like a good civics merit badge project, especially if they grease a few palms around the Capitol with their chocolate mint cookies. Their plan would surely get as much consideration as Family Forum's will.