The legislative battle to realign Louisiana’s congressional districts is over, but the deal definitely isn’t done. The U.S. Department of Justice has to approve reapportionment plans in seven Southern states because of their past voter discrimination.
Those states are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Congress in 2006 renewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years, and refused to end Justice Department review of election procedures in those states.
Members of Louisiana’s Legislative Black Caucus complained throughout the special reapportionment session that a second minority congressional district should have been created. The 2nd District based in New Orleans is currently the only minority district in the state.
A number of plans drawing two minority districts were rejected time and time again during the session. Opponents said a second minority district would dilute the vote of minorities in the other four districts.
Black lawmakers also wanted to create a horizontal district in north Louisiana that was more favorable to black voters. However, Gov. Bobby Jindal and most Republicans wanted two vertical congressional districts in the northern part of the state and that is how the final plan was drawn.
The Senate vote was 25-13. Seven of the eight black state senators voted against the plan. The House vote was 64-35, and 18 of 19 black representatives were opposed to the new map.
The Black Caucus said it will ask the Department of Justice to reject the congressional plan. What the department will do is anyone’s guess, and past history shows that Justice doesn’t always have the final word.
Eric Holder is the nation’s first black U.S. attorney general. And this is the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed that a Democratic administration will review redistricting plans.
No one knows whether either of those circumstances will affect the final decision.
Justice has 60 days to make a ruling, and legislative leaders say they are confident it will approve the plan. However, if it rejects the plan, it’s back to the drawing board for the Legislature.
Legislators did draw a second minority district in 1992 after the 1990 census, when the state’s 8th Congressional District was eliminated. Some called it the “Zorro” district because of the way it was shaped.
The new minority district wrapped around the north and east boundaries of the state, dipped into Rapides and Baton Rouge parishes and then into Lafayette Parish.
Eight state senators asked former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards not to sign the reapportionment bill, not knowing he had already done it. They said it favored Republicans because it created five super white voting districts.
Sen. Foster Campbell, D-Elm Grove, proved to be a great prognosticator when he said, “It’s devastating to the Democratic Party. I think in four years you’ll have only one Democrat incumbent in the state.”
Louisiana currently has six Republican U.S. House members and one Democrat, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans.
The U.S. Justice Department in 1992 gave its OK to the new congressional plan, but the courts had other ideas.
Jindal wanted two congressional districts in the northern part of the state this time around to protect U.S. Reps. John Fleming, R-Minden, of the 4th District and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, of the 5th District.
No one was protected in 1992. Congressmen had to run against one another in two districts. U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Shreveport, ran against U.S. Rep. Jerry Huckaby, D-Ringgold. And U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, ran against U.S. Rep. Clyde Holloway, R-Forest Hill, who had been the congressman from the 8th District.
McCrery and Baker were re-elected in the runoffs. And state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, won the new minority seat with 73 percent of the vote.
Citizens filed suit
Voters in Lincoln Parish challenged creation of the new minority district, and it was thrown out by the federal courts as being racially drawn. Legislators met again and drew up a more compact district that had 55 percent minority voters.
A three-judge federal court panel in Shreveport eventually rejected that plan, saying the lines were drawn with too heavy a consideration on race. The court then drew a plan of its own. The court plan was made up of mostly white voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually approved that plan in an 8-1 ruling in June of 1996. However, it didn’t issue a written opinion explaining why.
“The court took the Voting Rights Act and spun it on its head,” Fields said after the ruling that came four years after new congressional maps were drawn.
Mike Foster was governor at the time. He and others who supported the court-drawn congressional plan said they weren’t surprised because of recent Supreme Court decisions that said race cannot be the sole factor in drawing election district boundaries.
Whether that is still the case remains to be seen. The Justice Department is next, and any who disagree with what it decides will still have the federal courts as a last resort.
Yogi Berra definitely had it right on this one when he said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
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].