Politics, once a staple along with fishing and Tigers/Saints, has been crossed off the list of acceptable topics at crawfish boils, tailgates and dinners on the grounds.
Certainly, the increasingly bitter series of legislative sessions — six during the past 18 months — has demonstrated how Louisiana has cleaved along party lines. At the State Capitol, “I represent my constituents” is the go-to phrase that precedes vitriol.
The Legislature in 2011 drew up districts that grouped like-minded people and thereby eliminated the need to balance the wants of different constituencies. Politicians profit nowadays by saying “no way” rather than “how can we make this work?”
That issue has now found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court agreed last week to consider a federal district court’s ruling that the Wisconsin General Assembly unconstitutionally drew lopsided congressional and legislative districts that locked in Republicans and disenfranchised other voters.
Louisiana is not among those states that have similar lawsuits, but state politicos are closely watching Gill vs. Whitford.
Attorney General Jeff Landry joined 11 other Republican state attorneys general in a brief urging the Supreme Court to reject claims of partisan gerrymandering using the well-worn argument that states would be exposed to litigation. “The district court’s decision invites openly partisan policy battles in the courtroom,” the brief states.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards was surprised to learn that Louisiana had weighed in, according to his spokesman Richard Carbo on Thursday. “That said, Gov. Edwards’ lawyers are reviewing the information submitted to determine if it is appropriate or necessary for the state to become involved.”
Glenn Koepp, the Louisiana Senate secretary who has led the redrawing efforts for the upper chamber since 1980, says the high court appears ready to impose rules on reapportionment. Just how the justices do that will have a profound impact what he does in 2021.
Generally, mapping out legislative districts seems simple.
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Every 10 years the U.S. Census is taken. Koepp takes Louisiana’s population count and divides by 39 for the state Senate seats – his House counterparts divide by 105. Then he lines up the precincts into districts with roughly the same number of voters.
“My directive is ‘you keep us legal and let us worry about the politics’,” Koepp said, likening the process to a massive jigsaw puzzle with politicians having input over where the pieces go.
“I know the parties were very involved in the last redistricting process,” said state Rep. Michael E. Danahay, D-Sulphur. As chair of the House & Governmental Affairs Committee, Danahay is leading Louisiana’s delegation to the National Conference of State Legislatures annual conference in August that will include about a dozen seminars on reapportionment.
He points out Louisiana’s added dynamic: a history of systematically excluding African-Americans from political office by manipulating district lines. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required federal oversight of the state’s redistricting efforts to ensure minority participation. The historic emphasis on race will muddle any new rules on party, he said.
“In Louisiana, partisanship and race are closely intertwined,” said John M. Couvillon, a Baton Rouge pollster.
The Secretary of State’s latest count showed that 63 percent of the state’s 2.97 million registered voters are white. And whites make up 93 percent of the voters registered as Republicans in Louisiana, while blacks are 55 percent of the registered Democrats.
Drawing lines that ensure minority votes are not diluted creates districts dominated by one party or the other, Couvillon said.
Take, for instance, the experience of House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican who as part of the hardliners ended up voting against a more moderate version of the state budget.
Barras makes a credible case for how partisan philosophies evolved in such a way that he found himself more naturally aligned with the Republicans. But math must have also played a part.
When Barras was elected as a conservative Democrat in 2007, his House District 48 had 25,558 registered voters, 66 percent of whom were white and 56 percent Democratic.
After the 2010 U.S. Census charted the Katrina/Rita diaspora, map drawers needed to move some of the minority-majority districts from New Orleans in order to keep the minority participation levels within federal guidelines. One of the changes they made took about half of the roughly 8,000 African American voters from Barras’ district and linked them with largely black neighborhoods in Lafayette to create the district that elected state Rep. Terry Landry, a Democratic African-American from New Iberia.
Barras picked up the largely white suburbs of Lafayette.
Now his 48th House District is 81 percent white and 69 percent non-Democratic. In 2011, Barras became a Republican.
“The truth is you can’t take politics out of politics,” Koepp said.