You had to be at the state Capitol here Tuesday to feel the tense atmosphere that hung over a state Senate committee hearing like a dark cloud. Race was the unspoken word, but it was at the root of the unrest.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was debating two issues dealing with redistricting. Election lines have to be redrawn after every federal census and the process can become — as it did this week — a highly emotional event.
Legislators have to redraw Louisiana’s congressional lines, and this year’s task is more complicated because the state is losing one of its seven U.S. House members.
The second issue was the redrawing of state Senate election lines in order to account for the shift of population from some parts of the state to others.
Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, is chairman of the committee dealing with the two redistricting plans. He’s a former state district and court of appeal judge, and that’s probably why he can be arbitrary at times.
Complicating things is the fact that Kostelka has a congressional redistricting plan he likes better than all the rest. And he is dogged and determined he isn’t going to let anyone create one congressional district across north Louisiana that puts his hometown and Shreveport in the same district.
Others don’t agree
That’s where the crusty chairman and black lawmakers crossed swords. They had some testy exchanges during the hearing.
Black legislators in both the House and Senate have proposed congressional plans that create one north Louisiana district along Interstate 20.
Kostelka had his ducks lined up in a couple of rows in the audience. Four U.S. House members who were there didn’t hesitate to say Kostelka’s plan is the best they’ve seen. Each took his turn at the microphone to heap praise on the author for his efforts.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who represents Southwest Louisiana, admitted there are a few flaws in the Kostelka plan, but he said they can be fixed. He called it “fair and equitable.”
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, is dean of the U.S. House delegation. He said Kostelka’s plan “embraces the concept we endorsed way back.”
Perhaps the best thing going for Kostelka is the fact Gov. Bobby Jindal also likes his plan because it has two congressional districts in north Louisiana.
The state’s only black congressmen was on the other side of the fence from his House colleagues. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said he likes a plan being pushed by state Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, a member of Kostelka’s committee.
The north Louisiana congressional district Jackson wants to create along Interstate 20 would be 54.2 percent white and 42.6 percent black. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a black candidate could get elected to Congress from that district.
The highest percentage of black voters in the other five congressional districts under Kostelka’s plan is 36 percent.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, was critical of Kostelka’s handling of the Tuesday hearing. She said the agenda wasn’t specific and Kostelka wasn’t being transparent about the process he was going to follow.
Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, another member of the committee, complained Kostelka didn’t provide members with the necessary legislation being discussed.
After those exchanges, two white senators got into heated arguments over a state Senate redistricting plan sponsored by Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan. It increases minority districts from 10 to 11, so race was also a factor in that situation.
Chaisson said he picked north Louisiana for the new minority district because that is where 30 percent of minorities live.
Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, doesn’t like the way that plan splits Rapides Parish into four Senate districts. He thinks the new minority district should be in the River Parishes region below Baton Rouge where the population grew.
Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Livonia, doesn’t want the new district in the River Parishes area. He said creating a new minority district means “chopping up one place or another — in the north or down river.”
Kostelka had to call the two senators down when one or the other was interrupting and refusing to answer questions.
Both McPherson and Marionneaux have introduced plans to redraw state Senate lines to their satisfaction. Neither one increases the current number of 10 minority districts.
Numbers tell story
Chaisson and the blacks in the room agreed the 37 percent black population in the state justifies creation of another Senate minority district. If population were the only criteria, they said 13 or 14 minority districts could be created.
Jackson asked, “Is there ever room for another majority-minority district?”
No votes were taken in committee on either the congressional or Senate redistricting plans, and that was a good thing. Cooler heads need to prevail to get this job done right.
Some members of the House have serious concerns about how their districts are being redrawn, but they have been working behind the scenes to try and resolve their individual problems. They have been much more cordial during committee hearings.
Senate leaders at the end of the day called on their colleagues to be more respectful of one another. No one — participants and spectators alike — was comfortable in the tense atmosphere in that Senate hearing room. We deserve better from our public officials.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].