Denham Springs — After voters elected an all-white Denham Springs City Council this fall, black leaders are calling for a change that would help minorities reach office and wrest power away from the neighborhood on the north side of town where most council members live.
The Louisiana branch of the NAACP is calling on the city to introduce voting districts, while a longtime black councilman who is stepping down favors a system of divisions that would guarantee a minority representative.
Daniel Landry, president of the Livingston Parish chapter of the NAACP, lost a bid for the council in November and said the districting issue extends beyond race. Most council members live in the same part of Denham Springs between Centerville Street Northeast and Maple Street, causing that neighborhood to be overrepresented at the expense of people who live elsewhere, especially to the south, he contends.
Lori Lamm-Williams, an incumbent who won re-election in November, defended the at-large system, saying districts would unfairly restrict qualified candidates from reaching office. Denham Springs is too small for districts, she said. She also warned they would lead to infighting between district representatives instead of a united council that is answerable to all the city’s voters and seeks to help the city as a whole.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, Denham Springs had a population of 10,215. The city was 81.3 percent white and 14.9 percent black, with 3.8 residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino and 1.2 percent claiming multiple racial backgrounds.
Arthur Perkins, a black retired educator, was first elected to the council in 1974. With the exception of one term in the early 1990s, the Democrat has served ever since but decided not to seek re-election this year.
Landry said the black community felt that while Perkins was in office “at least we had somebody sitting at the table,” though Perkins lives on the north side of town.
In the Nov. 4 election and Dec. 6 runoff, Denham Springs voters chose five white council members. All live north of U.S. 190 — Florida Boulevard.
Now, Landry said the tone around the city has changed.
“People are not represented and feel like they’re not represented,” he said of people who live south of U.S. 190.
“This is about more than politics. It’s about fairness and equality and fair representation in out city. ... It doesn’t speak well to a community — in 2014 — to ignore a large segment (of its population.)”
He said the City Council gives preferential treatment to neighborhoods north of the highway where the council members live, a claim Lamm-Williams disputed.
“We do just as much economic development over there, roadwork over there, drainage over there. ... I don’t see how they feel they’re neglected,” she said. “We listen to their concerns. We take them seriously just like we do everyone else.”
Lamm-Williams said she is “very, very much against” districts.
“I think you are limiting the people who can run,” she said of the proposal.
She sees the elected leaders as representative of the entire field, which in the last vote consisted mainly of people who live north of U.S. 190. If districts were implemented, she wondered if southern areas would have trouble nominating candidates.
“I don’t know why we don’t have more interest in the south side of town,” she said.
Landry said that, as the only minority in the recent race, he had to run on his qualifications like everyone else but also “had to make people look beyond my race.”
His campaign was an uphill battle in other ways, though. Landry ran as a Democrat. In the Nov. 4 ballot’s marquee race for Louisiana senator, Republicans Bill Cassidy and Rob Maness combined for 79 percent of the vote in Livingston Parish, while Democrat Mary Landrieu carried only 16 percent.
Overall, Landry received 7 percent of the vote for City Council. Winning candidates received between 10 percent and 13 percent of the vote in the field of 12.
However, voters who cast their ballots at Denham Springs Junior High School, the polling location for Precinct 27, overwhelmingly supported Landry. The precinct is generally located to the east of South Range Avenue to the city limit between Florida Avenue and Vincent Road, though a few homes are located in unincorporated areas of the parish. Many residences in the precinct are located in the Rodeo Drive corridor.
The precinct has 2,116 voters as of Dec. 1 and is 32 percent black, according to Livingston Parish registrar of voters records. In November’s City Council race, Landry received 27 percent of the Precinct 27 vote — three times more than the second-place candidate.
The precinct also was marked by its relatively low turnout in the council election. With a 46.5 percent turnout, it was the only precinct where less than half of the electorate cast a ballot in the race, according to Secretary of State’s Office records. Most of the city’s other seven precincts had turnouts above 60 percent.
Now, the NAACP is considering suing the city to create voting districts.
“I think the foundation has certainly been laid ... for a lawsuit,” said Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana NAACP. “Denham Springs has got to come into the 21st century like everyone else.”
Black candidates have a harder time getting elected in at-large areas, Johnson said, but districts help make sure all residents get a voice in government.
“I think the council out there should go ahead and create the districts without a lawsuit. You don’t need a lawsuit to do what’s right,” he said, claiming if Denham Springs fights back, they will only lose taxpayer money on a doomed defense.
If the city decides to implement voting districts, they must draw the lines themselves, said John Gallagher, assistant director of government affairs for the Louisiana Municipal Association.
They may choose to hire a demographer or lawyer for the task. In the past, the federal Department of Justice had to preapprove district lines, but a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision removed that stipulation, Gallagher said.
The lines can still be challenged in court under the Voting Rights Act if they are believed to be gerrymandered or give disproportionate representation.
Perkins, meanwhile, prefers municipal divisions over districts.
“Districting would not help the black community that much,” he said, saying it would be difficult to create a black-majority district without gerrymandering.
In a system of political divisions, candidates could run for a specific seat, though all elections would be at-large. Denham Springs could adopt a system similar to the city of Gonzales, in which one district is reserved for black candidates, Perkins said.
He tried to sell the idea in Denham Springs a few years ago but tabled the matter when it didn’t garner any support.
“I didn’t get anything positive,” Perkins said.
Lamm-Williams spoke against the idea, wondering if the city would then have to offer protected seats for women or other minorities.
“Where does it stop?” she asked.
Johnson also was critical of the idea, saying the white majority would still be able to pick the black council member from the minority division.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.