I spend a lot of hours this time of year traveling around the state doing legislative issues conferences in conjunction with local chambers of commerce. I always find that experience very informative. It is an opportunity to hear the concerns of the business community in various regions of the state and to learn what is on the minds of legislators who represent those areas.
There is no doubt what the main topic of conversation has been at the gatherings this year: redistricting. The Legislature is currently in the process of taking the new population numbers from the 2010 census and fashioning the changes to the congressional, legislative, judicial, BESE, and Public Service districts necessary to conform to the principle of one man, one vote. As I noted in my January 14 column, this is the most controversial and divisive exercise legislators are ever involved in during their careers. Those words have proven to be true.
Perhaps the folks who were among the most upset with current trends in the redistricting process were the voters in central Louisiana. That region is greatly affected by potential changes in the congressional, Senate, and House plans. They are particularly upset about the loss of a Senate district which encompassed almost all of Rapides Parish. A close second would be the voters in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. They are greatly concerned about proposals that would remove those two parishes from the same congressional district and place them in separate ones.
Some voters may think that the friction in the redistricting process comes primarily from Republican/Democrat or black/white differences of opinion about which districts should shrink or disappear and which areas should gain additional representation. There have certainly been instances of those conflicts in the current special session on redistricting.
But controversies have definitely not been limited to concerns of political partisanship or race.
Committee and floor battles have been waged between whites and whites, blacks and blacks, Republicans and Republicans, and Democrats and Democrats. And of course, as always, there have been the North Louisiana versus South Louisiana disputes, particularly over the congressional redistricting.
One freshman member of the House told me this week that redistricting was the most brutal experience he has ever encountered. His concern wasn’t over which precincts would be in his own district. Instead, he lamented the fact that he had to choose between friends when amendments were offered that made changes to the plans. He was concerned that the intensely personal nature of the debate would create scars on friendships that would take a long time—if ever—to heal.
A freshman state Senator experiencing his first redistricting battle perhaps described the process the best. He said it reminded him of the “Survivor” television series. Individuals start out in relative harmony but then start segregating themselves into group alliances. They quickly focus on who they consider to be the weakest links, and they try to force them out. But along the way, the alliances have a hard time remaining together, and chaos breaks out into dog-eat-dog attempts at survival. That may be a colorful exaggeration of the process, but not a huge exaggeration.
The final bills will be enacted soon and the “survivors” will hold their breath while the plans are reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department and perhaps by the courts. Legislators and voters in the state will quickly move into the elections with the new districts in place. Some will be happy and some will be angry. But to many, the process will leave scars that will be remembered for a very long time.