UPDATED: Redistricting And The Joel Chaisson Problem

Over the weekend, when it became clear that the special session for redistricting has completely collapsed into chaos, five of the state’s seven congressmen sent a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal suggesting that rather than continue beating their heads against the wall in the vain hope that a plan acceptable to them will pass the state Senate, perhaps a smart idea would be to take a break. The letter suggested that congressional redistricting be put off for a year.

Jindal, as it turns out, shares their opinion. His chief of staff Timmy Teepell noted that while remapping for House, Senate, judicial and Public Service Commission districts is a priority now because all of those positions will be up for election this fall, there is another year before the congressional remap issue goes into red-alert territory.

“Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind and forcing the compromise we need,” he said.

Interestingly, all but one of the state’s Republican congressmen signed the letter. On board were Reps. John Fleming, Rodney Alexander, Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy and Jeff Landry. Conspicuously absent is Rep. Charles Boustany, who is being accused of aiding the state’s Democrats in mucking up the redistricting process in the Senate. The letter, and Jindal’s agreement to it, signals that Boustany might have gone a bit too far in fighting changes to the congressional district that he’s soon to share with Landry.

Multiple sources report that Boustany had a large hand in organizing testimony in support of a remap plan put forth by state Sen. Lydia Jackson (D-Shreveport), a plan favored by Senate President Joel Chaisson and pushed to passage. Boustany testified in favor of Jackson’s plan, which would create a 43-percent black district along the I-20 corridor in the northern part of the state and likely spell electoral doom for Fleming. It would also create a more difficult situation for Alexander as well. Fleming led the charge in denouncing Boustany for his support of Jackson’s remap bill, which died in the state House amid threats by Jindal to veto it.

A competing remap bill by state Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) failed by one vote amid concerns that it took parts of Jefferson Davis and Acadia parishes out of Boustany’s district and put them into Fleming’s district, and Riser then amended his bill to essentially include Jackson’s map in South Louisiana but keep two vertical districts in North Louisiana rather than an I-20 district and a central Louisiana-based district. But rather than vote on Riser’s amended bill Friday, which few of the state’s congressional delegation outside of Boustany were happy with either, Chaisson adjourned the Senate until today.

What to make of all this? Some, like former Lake Charles American Press editor Jim Beam writing here at the Hayride yesterday, take the position that Boustany is the only statesman among a gaggle of partisan Republicans. I disagree. Based on the torrent of information coming in from multiple sources, including reports confirmed to us yesterday that Boustany was indeed dropping F-bombs on the state’s Republican Party, it looks an awful lot like the Lafayette-based Republican has a single-minded focus toward protecting himself in the coming campaign against Landry. Boustany is doing everything he can to avoid having to take on part or all of the Houma/Thibodaux area in advance of the 2012 elections, for fear that he can’t compete with Landry there and electoral doom will result. Testimony in favor of Jackson’s bill included a laughable discussion of the cultural differences between “prairie French and Cajun French” as they relate to congressional representation; the idea that something like that could be brought into the public discussion without a hidden agenda is difficult to swallow.

Certainly the idea that Boustany is looking out for Number One at the expense of everyone else is the perception Fleming has of the situation, and based on the letter to Jindal over the weekend laying out a position opposite Boustany’s it would appear Fleming isn’t alone. If Boustany is right, he certainly hasn’t been very convincing to Scalise, Fleming, Alexander and Cassidy – who up until now have been political allies of his. In fact, the delegation had largely agreed back in January that Landry’s district would be the one broken up. After all, Landry ran for the district knowing that he was likely to lose it, and from a congressional perspective it makes sense that last-in-first-out would be the position most would agree on.

I’ve said before that incumbent protection is the worst possible criterion for which to draw districts. And I’ve also said that vertical districts which result in idiocy like Alexander representing both Bastrop and Breaux Bridge are a lousy idea. But I’ve also said that cutting Louisiana into seven districts can be done quite cleanly but six districts is a nightmare. So any remap will be problematic. There should be no expectation that any district survives intact in this process.

And in Boustany’s case, attempting to block the appendage of the “Cajun French” to his “Prairie French” district is an exercise in paranoia which might very well end in an unpleasant surprise. Landry, after all, is not from Houma or Thibodaux; he’s from New Iberia. He has lots of contacts in Lafayette, and he’s capable of reaching into Lake Charles and building a donor base and electoral support the same way he was able to do so in Houma and Thibodaux last year when the conventional wisdom had it that Hunt Downer was unbeatable in those areas. The way to beat Landry is to match his efforts in campaigning and fundraising all over the area covered by a potential new district, not to build a Maginot line at the Atchafalaya River as it appears he’s attempting to do.

But if you’re going to draw an I-20 district you can do it without either packing it with black voters the way Jackson did or having it look like a Rorschach test. The reason Jackson’s map looks like it does is that the state’s Democrats are looking for partisan advantage in an effort to thwart the will of Louisiana voters – who have made it very clear they’re not interested in voting for Democrats anymore.

Chaisson was well on board with Jackson’s Democrat Congressional Resurrection Plan, and pushed it through the Senate despite the fact there is a Republican majority in the body and despite the fact there shouldn’t have been any hope of getting it through the House or past the governor. He and Boustany, working according to different objectives, succeeded in creating a hash of the process.

And with the move to table congressional redistricting until next year – after a fall election cycle which is expected to bring in not just a lot more Republicans but a lot more conservatives – it appears the Governor has finally come to the realization that coddling Chaisson is a fool’s errand.

Jindal is late to the party in this regard. The governor actually sided with Chaisson last year amid an impasse over the state’s budget, using a plethora of one-time funds to continue higher special-interest spending rather than abiding by a House plan which would have been far more austere, and this year’s $1.6 billion budget deficit is the result. Now, the term-limited Destrehan Democrat, who is weighing a run for a statewide office (there’s talk he’ll be taking on Attorney General Buddy Caldwell this fall), is busy tilting at congressional remap windmills while so antagonizing House Speaker Jim Tucker that a long tradition of the House and Senate respecting each other’s territory in redistricting is in jeopardy.

Which begs the question of why it is that Chaisson is even the Senate President in the first place. Certainly he had legitimacy in that role when the Senate had a Democrat majority, but with the recent special elections of Johnathan Perry and Fred Mills and the party switches of John Alario, John Smith, Jody Amedee and Norby Chabert that majority is long gone. Chaisson doesn’t represent the will of the Senate as its president, or at least he doesn’t to the extent that party affiliation is an expression of that will. And yet there has been no move to unseat him from that role – an indication of a lack of will on the part of either Jindal or Republicans in the Senate to press an advantage when one is available.

Ultimately, this should be a lesson for the governor. He has given constant indications of a preference for letting the legislature work its will, and in a perfect world that would be a good idea. But while Louisiana tradition of a strongman governor riding roughshod over the legislature is an unfortunate one, upsetting that tradition does require developing quality leadership in the legislature. In the House, Tucker has for better or worse become a powerful force as Speaker. In the Senate, though, Chaisson has been problematic – he’s effective in pushing a Democrat agenda on spending and other issues while bragging about his relationship with Jindal, but if he was truly a strong leader in the Senate he wouldn’t have presided over his party’s loss of six seats in a 39-seat body without an election cycle to turn them.

The fact is, Jindal doesn’t have the leadership in both houses of the legislature to take a back seat. Redistricting has shown that even if previous difficulties didn’t. He wanted to stay out of the battles; now he’s going to have to insert himself into them. And while doing so will engender partisan howling from Democrats who will scream that he’s going back on a promise not to get involved, his mistake was to claim a hands-off role in the first place. None of the remaps will become law without Jindal’s signature in the first place; he’s involved regardless of what he says.

If Jindal is coming around to this idea, so much the better. Moving the congressional remap to another session early next year, after the voters have had a chance to turn more Democrats out of office (or add some, in the unlikely event the Dems resurrect themselves), would at least give Louisiana a chance at a process run by a Senate president not engaged in thwarting the will of the voters.

Chaisson has failed. Jindal and the state’s Republican majority shouldn’t protect him from it.

UPDATE: Far from getting the message that he’s moving in the wrong direction, Chaisson is actually making things even worse. Today, the Senate President amended a bill by Democrat Sen. Rob Marionneaux (SB23) to create another Democrat-friendly congressional remap, this one snaking across the top of the state to maximize the black vote in John Fleming’s district, gutting Rep. Steve Scalise’s district on the Northshore and replacing it with Lafourche and Terrebone Parishes, stretching Bill Cassidy’s district east into St. Tammany Parish and throwing most of northern East Baton Rouge Parish into Rodney Alexander’s district.

Marionneaux himself complained about Chaisson’s amendment.

Marionneaux said he was not happy with his Senate Bill 23 was amended, because it stretches the congressional district that covers the Baton Rouge area from Tangipahoa on the east to West Baton Rouge and down to St. Martin, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes while omitting some of the traditional area parishes such as East and West Feliciana and St. Helena.

“I am not going to sponsor a bill that tears apart the capital region,” Marionneaux said.

A map of Marionneaux’s plan, as amended by Chaisson…

Of course, the Livonia Democrat was so upset about what Chaisson did that he voted for the bill, which passed the Senate on a 22-17 vote. Marionneaux and Chaisson were joined, interestingly enough, by several Republicans – Jody Amedee, Norby Chabert, Gerald Long, Mike Michot, Fred Mills, Blade Morrish, Johnathan Perry and Julie Quinn. Long was quoted as opposing a move to table the congressional remap prior to voting for the bill.

The current special session is slated to end on Wednesday. The Senate doesn’t appear to have a plan on the table the House – or Jindal – would approve of.

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