Redistricting’s Getting Hot, Heavy And Ugly

We’ll be working on this all week long, for sure, but with the release of some of the redistricting plans – particularly with respect to Congress – late last week and the special session to deal most notably with Congressional and legislative maps, an already-contentious process is about to get even more controversial.

Consider this web ad, for example, taking aim at the concept of the two-districts-in-North-Louisiana idea most people take for granted given that Rep. Rodney Alexander is the dean of the state’s delegation…

Alexander is the target of several business groups in the state, and in particular the construction industry, following his “no” vote which ultimately proved to be the decisive one on an amendment that would have banned the use of pro-union project labor agreements in construction contracts let by the federal government. His defenders would attack the above video by calling it a bit of payback and politically motivated in its own right.

But while that might be true, the ad does make a good point – namely, that North Louisiana’s population has taken a beating in the last 10 years while South Louisiana’s population is growing. And most of the plans currently on offer, particularly the ones the conventional wisdom says are the most likely to move forward, involve two vertical districts emanating out of the northern part of the state and meandering south. Rep. John Fleming’s district, for example, would originate near Oil City at the Arkansas state line and come as far south as Lake Charles. And Alexander’s district would stretch from Bastrop into Breaux Bridge – or even Baton Rouge.

Everyone takes it for granted that Alexander and Fleming would be protected, and that ultimately the effect of redistricting will be to pit Reps. Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry against each other in a district which contains two of the three southwestern or south-central Louisiana metro areas (Lafayette and either Houma/Thibodaux or Lake Charles), depending on how it’s cut. And while that might be unavoidable, it seems all the attention is focused on the 2012 races and what redistricting does to those. That’s not really a good thing.

It’s not a good thing, because the districts drawn in the special session will last 10 years. They might outlast the term in office of every one of Louisiana’s congressmen. Ten years from now one or two of the current delegation might be governor or senator. Or retire. Or resign amid scandal. You never know.

And so the idea of incumbent protection as the primary objective of drawing the districts is the worst possible idea.

Instead, it would be a good idea to put the state in the best possible position for effective representation. Alexander representing Bastrop and Breaux Bridge doesn’t do that, and neither does Fleming representing Shreveport and Lake Charles. Fleming or Alexander representing an I-20 corridor probably makes more sense, even if as a result the district to the south might stretch from Lake Charles to Mansfield to Vidalia to New Roads. Unless that district were to drape a finger over Quitman, and thus grab Alexander, it would likely necessitate a brand-new congressional race with no incumbent while the state is treated to intra-Republican cage matches between Fleming and Alexander to the north and Boustany and Landry to the south.

And of course the state GOP wouldn’t particularly like that idea. The “central Louisiana” district is not one which would be reliably Republican by any means, though Lake Charles and Alexandria do offer a pretty decent base of conservative voters to draw from. So if the I-20 district would come about, there’s a good chance that instead of a 5-1 Republican-to-Democrat split in the delegation, a 4-2 split might result.

And the product wouldn’t be all that great anyway. A district running from Lake Charles into the Mississippi Delta parishes isn’t what one would call particularly contiguous. But as it happens, there is no way to cut Louisiana into six districts without making a mess. Seven districts can be done quite easily; in fact, the current map does a better job of building contiguous and sensible districts than perhaps any which preceded it. But six is a nightmare.

And some of the other plans make a Lake Charles-to-Vidalia district look like utter genius. Some maps chop off pieces of the Baton Rouge area, the most populous and fastest-growing in the state, into districts currently represented by Alexander, or Landry (who does have a piece of Ascension Parish now), or even Cedric Richmond. Baton Rouge really should have one district; that seems sensible. Spider-webbing a majority-minority district up the river from Orleans Parish into North Baton Rouge, which is being thrown around as a possibility, is an unacceptable idea. But it will get lots of play in this session, though the Capitol City’s current congressman, Bill Cassidy, is fighting hard to keep the area intact.

All this gives one the feeling that a disaster – or even a few disasters – could be unfolding. Certainly nobody will emerge from the redistricting session with a cool temper and an unblemished skin. And with the loss of a Congressional seat, the people of Louisiana aren’t going to win.

Instead, the real question is which voters – and politicians – will lose the most.

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