Fair Districts LA summit puts Louisiana redistricting on the map early

Photo: Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, speaks during an Oct. 3 anti-gerrymandering rally at the Supreme Court of the United States. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)


Four days of snow and ice that shut down much of the state wasn’t enough to keep about 120 lawmakers, consultants, lobbyists and political activists away from a day-long discussion about redistricting Louisiana.

The fact that we are nearly three years away from a special session that will redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps following the 2020 U. S. Census did nothing to dampen the interest in the process, either — even among legislators who, due to term limits, likely will not be direct participants in the 2021 process.

Ten members of the Louisiana Legislature served as panelists. They discussed prior redistricting cycles, the trend toward more partisan and outside interest in state redistricting efforts, and opportunities for reform of the process.

The lawmakers were generally opposed to a separate commission being handed the responsibility of redistricting the legislature and the state’s congressional districts — although House Speaker Walt Leger III (D-NO) said he would support a commission approach in order to “end the practice of legislators choosing their constituents instead of the other way around.” Leger characterized the redistricting process as “a battle between idealism and realism.”

Redistricting and race

None of the GOP leadership in either the House or Senate attended the redistricting event. But the strong contingent of the Legislative Black Caucus attending the summit, and the comments from members who participated in panels, demonstrated a recognition of the stakes — based, if nothing else, on the results of what many view to be the flawed redistricting carried out in 2011.

Several members of the Legislative Black Caucus signaled a willingness to move away from what have tended to be packed minority-majority legislative districts.

“I think there is a need to move away from packed districts, because we recognize that if you create packed black districts, you’re also creating packed white districts,” State Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith (D-BR) told the audience during a panel on Louisiana’s redistricting history. Smith believes that part of that packing was the result of pressure from incumbents to craft districts that favored their re-election.

That packing can also reduce minority representation in the legislature. While the 2010 Census found that 32.6 percent of the state’s 4.5 million people are black, only about 23 percent of both the state House and Senate are black (24 of the 105 state House members, and nine of the 39 Senate members). Louisiana blacks are also underrepresented in the U.S. congressional delegation, with just one black House member out of six (Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans).

Louisiana’s current congressional district map, adopted in 2011.

In 2011, the state’s seven-member delegation was deeply involved in the redrawing of the congressional districts map because the state was losing one of its then-seven congressional districts. Then-7th District Rep. Charles Boustany (R-Lafayette) was intent on staying in Congress. But freshman 3rd-District Rep. Jeff Landry ultimately became the odd man out; his district was shifted to the western part of coastal Louisiana, the area represented by Boustany. The two incumbent Republicans faced each other in the 2012 election, with Boustany prevailing largely thanks to the voters in his old district who comprised the bulk of the voters in the newly configured Third District.

The Republican intramural tug of war over the congressional map diverted attention from the stark mathematical clarity that resulted from the 2010 Census data combined with the loss of a House seat. Whites are 63.2 percent of Louisiana’s population — almost exactly two-thirds of it. So was no stretch to produce a map that had a proportional two minority-majority congressional districts in a six-district map of the state. But while one such map advanced from the Senate (which then-state Sen. Michael Jackson (D-BR) worked on with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund), it failed to get out of committee in the House during the 2011 special legislative session on redistricting.

Rep. Smith told conference attendees that then Governor Bobby Jindal had made it known to lawmakers in 2011 that he would only sign the congressional map favored by the Republican delegation, in which party politics trumped demographics.

How the redistricting conference came to be

Fair Districts LA founder and Louisiana Redistricting Summit organizer Matt Bailey.

The conference was the brainchild of Fair Districts LA founders Matt Bailey and Stephen Kearny. “We didn’t know each other until we started collaborating on Fair Districts LA,” Bailey told 50 States in an interview between conference sessions. “Someone told me that Stephen had been talking about the need for more citizen involvement in redistricting here during New Leaders Louisiana sessions.” So Bailey, who had been active in leadership roles in New Leaders Louisiana’s early years, reached out to Kearny, an energy policy researcher who had moved back to Louisiana from Colorado in 2014.

Bailey said that he and Kearny were surprised by the level of interest they found in redistricting. They decided to organize a summit bringing together leaders and experts from across the political spectrum to discuss the subject in general, approaches used in different states, and the specific history of redistricting in Louisiana.

Working with LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, Bailey and Kearny stopped their organization-building work on Fair Districts LA and focused on organizing the Louisiana Redistricting Summit. The event was scheduled to be held in LSU’s Manship School of Journalism, but low water pressure issues resulting from the prolonged (for south Louisiana) freeze forced the campus to remain closed on Friday. After briefly considering postponing the event when the campus closure announcement was made Thursday night, the summit was moved to the LSU Lod Cook Alumni Center, and attendees were notified by email. About 90 percent of those who had pre-registered showed up. There were about 120 attendees throughout the day.

In all, it was an impressively mainstream event pulled off by a grassroots organization.


What’s next for Louisiana redistricting

Gov. John Bel Edwards remains popular with Louisiana voters. His 2019 re-election bid will have significant impact on the state’s 2021 redistricting process.

The kind of redistricting process Louisiana ultimately gets will be decided in the 2019 statewide elections.

Louisiana’s state elections fall between federal election years. The next election for governor and the Legislature will be held in 2019. Because of term limits imposed on legislators, 16 of the 39 members of the Senate and 35 members of the House will not be eligible to seek re-election.

The legislature elected in 2019 will take office in 2020. The legislators inaugurated in January 2020 will redraw the maps for both state chambers and the congressional districts (which will likely remain a total of six).

The 2019 governor’s race is another variable in the overall redistricting mix. Democrat John Bel Edwards remains popular (65 percent approval rating, according to a recent poll conducted by a Republican-leaning firm) — but that has not prevented prominent Republicans from making it known they are considering running against Edwards.

Among those Republicans are one member of Congress (Ralph Abraham of the Fourth District) and one U.S. senator (freshman Sen. John N. Kennedy). Abraham has declared his intention to run, while Kennedy announced in a television interview that he is looking at the race.

Attorney General Jeff Landry is also widely believed to be preparing to run against Edwards. Landry’s frequent legal skirmishes with the Governor and a few high-profile investigations have kept him in the public spotlight.

Additionally, there was talk in Baton Rouge last spring of some members of the Louisiana Senate looking at the race, including Brett Allain of Franklin and Jack Donahue of Mandeville.

While the redistricting summit was non-partisan, a general theme that emerged from the day is that outside money will be hard at work in Louisiana’s redistricting. The mantra from legislators was that the only effective counter to that is to demand a transparent and fair redistricting process.

The House Republican Caucus introduced a high level of partisanship into the legislative process in the first two years of this term. The caucus has political muscle with its nearly two-thirds majority, and has demonstrated a willingness to use it. If that partisanship intensifies (and it shows no sign of abating), the redistricting process will likely have a strong partisan component in it. Winning the governorship while maintaining control of both legislative chambers would give Republicans the kind of political control in Baton Rouge that they have in Washington.