Beverly Wright of New Orleans East, representing African-American Women of Purpose and Power, says she has something in common with Republican activist Mike Bayham of Chalmette, representing St. Bernard Parish government. Neither wants to be in the same legislative district with the other.
They both came to the Capitol last week to complain to the state Senate committee overseeing redistricting that proposed new lines would split up their respective communities, turning those citizens into disadvantaged minorities to be represented by senators who are not like them.
“Drowned by Katrina, polluted by BP, we don’t need to be eviscerated by politics,” inveighed Bayham. “If you split us, we are not going to have two senators, we’ll have none.”
Also playing the disaster card, Connie Hamilton of New Orleans East declared the new district configuration “would hamper the rebuilding momentum” and “dismantle the solidarity of purpose, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
In their high-octane rhetoric they were not alone. “I can’t wrap my brain around that,” said Ben Harang of Thibodaux to the division of his city of 14,500 into three senatorial districts. “Unbelievable” and “bizarre” were other adjectives used to describe proposed House and Senate districts in every part of the state.
Yet the only descriptions that matter are: “fair” and “legal.”
Hamilton might feel her community is being discriminated against, but were King to walk among us, he might wonder what she’s talking about, for both senators who will be running for re-election in that area are, like her, black.
Sens. Ed Murray and J.P. Morrell may be black, but, because they live west of the Industrial Canal, to Hamilton they have little in common with the people of the East. Disrupting that community of interest, another speaker flatly predicted, would cause the U.S. Justice Department, which must pre-clear the new plan, to reject it as illegal.
There is no telling what the Justice Department will decide, but, in the past, the feds have cared less about what side of the canal, or railroad tracks or parish line people live, and more about the color of their skin.
The legal requirements of compactness of districts and communities of interest can be applied with wide latitude, and must be, in order to draw the appropriate number of minority districts and to comply with the principle of one man-one vote.
In both House and Senate plans under consideration, despite the massive loss of black residents from New Orleans, the number of majority-minority districts has increased from ten years ago, while the state’s black population has remained nearly the same. Ultimately, only a federal judge’s opinion matters, but, from this viewpoint, so far the Legislature has it right.
Fairness is an even more subjective question. That the new districts would be drawn to be most fair to incumbents we knew full well going in. Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, was refreshingly candid in describing his main objective, besides gaining federal approval, as incumbent protection and, where possible, maintaining the core of existing districts. He worked so hard to accommodate four Republican senators in North Louisiana that his map included a new minority district centered in Alexandria and reaching up to Natchitoches, which might not seem fair to a host of white politicians in Rapides Parish lining up to run for the open seat.
Throughout committee and floor debate, the communities-of-interest angle was raised time and again, though the underlying motivations more often were racial, partisan or simply career preservation.
Under the fairest plan, there will always be communities divided and their citizens represented by politicians of different races, parties and parishes. It is unavoidable, but also can be healthy. As much as the membership of the Legislature needs be diverse, so too should be constituencies, so that lawmakers have to look out for more than a single community of interests and to consider the needs of the region and the state.
While still not through the process, as they stand, the reapportionment plans for the Legislature have enough not to like about their parts to work as a whole.