In a voting rights twist, two white St. Gabriel residents on Tuesday asked a federal judge to rule that the City Council violated their rights by refusing to adopt a redistricting plan that would allow the town’s white residents to elect at least one representative of their choice to the five-member governing body.
Milisa C. York and Barry B. Leblanc told Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson that the town’s at-large voting system has created an atmosphere where whites are even discouraged to run for office because the town’s majority black electorate historically uses bloc voting to ensure the town keeps a predominately black legislative body that’s uninterested in addressing the needs of white residents.
But the attorney representing St. Gabriel argued in court Tuesday that the plaintiffs failed to produce any evidence showing the town’s voting procedures are designed to discriminate against white candidates or that political campaigns in the town, which was incorporated in 1994, have been overshadowed by race.
“I want a voice in my government,” York said on the stand during the trial proceedings.
York and Leblanc filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in June 2014 asserting St. Gabriel’s five-member, all-black City Council is violating a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution for its refusal to adopt a redistricting plan featuring single-member districts that would give white voters better representation in city government.
The trial is set to continue Wednesday morning.
“The way things are set up now, I’m insignificant to them,” York told the judge. “The same people run, and the same people get elected. And a majority of them live in the same area — within stone throws of each other.”
Leblanc, a 14-year resident of St. Gabriel, said, “I would feel uncomfortable going to them with an issue. I don’t even know where they live or who they are.”
The issue in St. Gabriel is almost a mirror image of the debate in Denham Springs, where at-large voting has resulted in an all-white council whose members also live close to one another. There, the Livingston Parish chapter of the NAACP has called for the city to introduce voting districts.
During the trial Tuesday in the St. Gabriel case, attorney Dannie Garrett said his clients were among a group of white residents who approached the St. Gabriel City Council last summer urging city leaders to abandon the town’s at-large voting system. The at-large scheme gives the top five vote getters in municipal elections a seat on the council.
Since the town was created, Garrett argued, all five municipal elections were racially polarized with a single white candidate earning a seat on the council in just two elections, in 1995 and 1999.
In 2000, the town’s population was 72 percent black and 27 percent white, according to U.S. Census data.
By 2010 U.S., the town’s population slightly shifted to 64 percent black and 34 percent white.
Garrett used testimony from expert witness William Blair, the director of demographic services with the Louisiana Legislature, to show that election data from the town’s three voting precincts proves white candidates can’t even make it into runoff elections in St. Gabriel due to the voting habits of the majority.
Blair told the court the most obvious evidence of bloc voting can be seen in the results from a predominately black precinct during the 2003 and 2007 municipal elections.
Blair said during those elections, black voters overwhelmingly supported one set of candidates while polling results from the remaining precincts reveal St. Gabriel’s white minority often cast ballots for a different set of people.
“What you’re seeing in St. Gabriel is that the white minority and the black majority have completely different ideas about who they want to represent them,” Blair said. “There has been very little overlap.”
But St. Gabriel’s attorney, Phillip Canova, got Blair to admit that with such few precincts and only a couple of elections to study, it’s difficult to theorize the town’s voting habits with any certainty.
Canova called upon the testimony of his own expert witness, John Alford, a political science professor at Rice University who reviewed the same data as Blair but also took into account results from several parishwide races and the election for the town’s police chief — who is also elected at-large — to argue that there are no racially polarized voting patterns.
Alford presented data to the court showing the white councilman elected in St. Gabriel’s 1995 municipal elections garnered support from both white and black voters as did Kevin Ambeau, who became police chief in the 2003 and 2007 with the support of white and black voters even when he was up against white candidates.
Mayor Lionel Johnson testified that he had representatives from Redistricting LLC present several single-member district maps to the City Council in the past. However, council members showed very little interest in dissolving the at-large election system.
“I did that based on conversations with constituents who had concerns that council members all lived in close proximity of each other,” Johnson said.
Johnson added, “I support redistricting because I believe it may be the right thing to do. I’m just not sold on the ‘black/white’ issue.”
The mayor said he knew of only one councilman who has been supportive of a redistricting effort since taking office.
That councilman, Melvin Hasten, later testified he couldn’t recall why the idea has never caught on with the rest of the City Council.
“In my heart, I feel it’s the fair thing to do,” Hasten testified. “It’s something I’d like to see done.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.