Redistricting turns political

Advocate, The (Baton Rouge, LA) - Sunday, August 7, 2011

The U.S. Department of Justice last week approved - or "precleared" in redistricting parlance - Louisiana's plan for electing its six congressmen for next the decade. 

Like most of the South, Louisiana's history of discriminating against minorities requires the federal government to vet any fiddling with election procedures to ensure that the voting rights of black people are not diminished by the changes. 

Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Erich Ponti sponsored the plan that was eventually adopted on a vote largely along racial lines - 25-13 in the state Senate and 64-35 in the Louisiana House. It was approved during the final three hours of the session that ended on April 13. 

Ponti said last week that his plan was the best consensus for balancing various "communities of interest" and keeping parishes intact wherever possible. It also juggled the complex legal demands made by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and dealing with the loss of a congressional seat. 

Fellow Baton Rouge state Rep. Patricia Smith, a Democrat who chairs the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, says Republicans, led by Gov. Bobby Jindal, bullied a plan that protects Republican incumbents in the U.S. Congress and diminishes the influence of the state's black people. The 2010 U.S. census calculates Louisiana's black population at 32 percent of the 4.5 million people. 

Ponti's plan draws two districts vertically - one from Shreveport and the other from Monroe - which splits urban communities and minimizes the influence of voters who elected Democrats as mayors in six of the state's largest cities, Smith said. Instead, districts are loaded with rural and suburban white people who have historically voted for conservative Republicans, she said. 

Baton Rouge Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy's 6th Congressional District, for instance, went from 33.6 percent black to 23.6 percent. He doubled up on constituents in Livingston and Ascension parishes and picked up parts of largely rural parishes of West Baton Rouge, Lafourche, St. Charles and Terrebonne parishes. 

That the districts favor incumbents shouldn't come as a big shock, inasmuch as incumbents draw the maps, said Greg Rigamer. He is the New Orleans demographer who helped U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans. 

Richmond now represents 102,184 people - nearly all are black - in East Baton Rouge Parish. His new district stretches up the Mississippi River and is about 63 percent black. Two-thirds of the district's voters live in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. 

In the five other congressional districts, Republicans have a clear advantage, Rigamer said. He points out that all but one of the officials elected statewide are Republican and the GOP holds majorities in both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature. 

For Elliott Stonecipher, the Shreveport activist who once worked for Gov. Buddy Roemer, the Ponti plan is cynical partisan protection perpetrated by Baton Rouge incumbents and endorsed by sitting officials in Washington, D.C. The betrayal for Louisiana is government's continued refusal to allow the state's black and white populations to fully assimilate, he said. 

Stonecipher drafted a plan that would have linked Shreveport and Monroe in one congressional district. His configuration necessarily would have meant Richmond's district would still be black majority but have far more white voters. Incumbents in less-homogenous districts would have to campaign in opposite neighborhoods, Stonecipher said. 

State Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, points to a number of polls, such as the CNN tally in which 77 percent of the 860 adults questioned last week disapproved of the partisan way the president and the Congress handled the debt-limit debate. 

Really, all that happened was that the congressmen clung to the rhetoric of a constituency so large that alternative views could be ignored safely, she said. 

"What you get from these districts," Jackson said, " are flag-wavers, whatever their banner is, and not statesmen who want to weave tapestries."