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Pelican State politicos sweat it out on redistricting

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March 29, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Baton Rouge, LOUISIANA: Just what is going on in Louisiana, scene of one of America's earliest and most bewildering redistricting battles?

Early Congressional and partisan alliances might be cracking as regional interests raise their head.

At the Congressional level, Louisiana has lost a seat. However, all seven current Congressmen have made it clear they want to go back to Washington in 2013. There are two freshmen, lone Democrat Cedric Richmond, representing the 2nd District, and the GOP's Jeff Landry, in the 3rd. Richmond's seats is Louisiana’s majority-minority seat, meaning it, and, by extension, Richmond's position, is sacrosanct. This has made Landry into a dead man walking, something clear early on, but Landry is still fighting.

It's is more likely every day that the new map collapsing seven seats into six will make the most changes in the coastal southwest, where Landry's seat abuts that of four term Republican Charles Boustany. So confident is Boustany that the map will favor him he is already campaigning in land properly belonging to Landry's district.

But what is making this scenario so likely? Simply, it's northern Louisiana. Two districts, the 4th and 5th, split the upper half of the state, each running north-south in broad swaths. With Louisiana’s population loss in the last decade, maintaining those two seats would require both to pick up land, plunging deep into bayou territory. That, plus the absolute necessity of keeping the area around New Orleans as a VRA-compliant district, leaves no way to settle the rest of the state into three districts without disrupting at least one population center .

And disrupted population centers mean unhappy Congressmen.

Figure 1: This map shows the Louisiana Congressional Districts as they are now.

The dean of the Louisiana Congressional delegation, 5th-term Rodney Alexander, holds the 5th District, and backs preserving as much of his seat as possible while adding territory. John Fleming in the 4th is his natural ally. Governor Bobby Jindal, up for re-election this fall, indicated his preference for preserving two north-south seats in the north of Louisiana and, at one point, every Congressmen save Landry was on board. The state legislators who landed in the chairmanships of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees, respectively Rick Gallot and Bob Kostelka, both call the north home, all factors that left observers to speculate that the south would take the brunt of the pain of redistricting.

However, support for flipping those northern seats, making them run east-west across the entire span of the state, gained some surprising support. Such a plan would place the cities of Shreveport and Monroe in one Congressional seat, an idea civic leaders and legislative backers insist makes sense due to shared culture and priorities. Combining those two cities would also auger well for minority voters, which is how the idea, nicknamed the “I-20 plan” after the highway the district would roughly follow, found an ally in Rick Gallot.

A black Democrat charged with leading redistricting work in the House, Gallot admits backing a plan that will, no doubt, decrease the clout of the northern half of the state in Baton Rouge might make him unpopular among some. However, it fits in neatly with the stated aim of the Legislative Black Caucus, to have as many minority seats as possible at all levels. And it is finding friends in the south who realize the only way to see their own power bases left intact is to blunt plans to preserve north-south running seats.

Earlier this week in hearings for the Senate and Government Affairs Committee, two Democratic bills that proposed keeping the coastal parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche in a single seat, an outcome really only possible if the northern seats get flipped to run east-west, garnered enough Republican opposition to keep them off the Senate floor, but not enough to kill them in committee, meaning the debate goes on.

Testifying for those bills, Congressmen Landry and Boustany both said they have no opposition to changing the configuration of north Louisiana's seats in order to preserve key southern parishes intact, a reversal of position for Boustany. A third Congressmen, Steve Scalise, declined to say if he still retains any preference for northern Louisiana if it comes at the expense of the south. The final member of the delegation, Bill Cassidy, could become an ally, as he is already upset over the need to take land from his Baton Rouge seat in order to give the New Orleans seat enough black voters to remain a minority seat.

Terrebonne and Lafourche are together right now, and sit in Landry's targeted seat. They are a Republican stronghold, meaning Boustany will want them together for his anticipated 2012 run. However, they are also Landry's personal power base, making him, and his hopes of a second term, a natural champion for the idea. That the man who is arguably the most conservative Congressman Louisiana has now shares an interest with the hopes of legislative Democrats not only proves politics makes strange bedfellows but promises more upheaval and shifting alliances before all is said and done in the Deep South.

See also