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Push for 2nd majority-Black district takes center stage as lawmakers begin redistricting tour

 Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) addresses the public at the Joint Governmental Affairs Committee's first redistricting roadshow event. Oct. 20, 2021.
Paul Braun
Louisiana Legislature
Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell) addresses the public at the Joint Governmental Affairs Committee's first redistricting roadshow event. Oct. 20, 2021.

As Louisiana lawmakers kicked off their redistricting roadshow Wednesday, northeast Louisiana residents urged those leading the process to draw new political districts that better represent the state’s Black population, a change that would likely cost the state’s dominant Republican party a seat in Congress.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican and chairwoman of one of the two legislative committees that will lead redistricting efforts, said the ten-stop tour is an attempt to keep the redistricting process “open, accessible and transparent.”

It’s a tall order. Across the country, the decennial redistricting process has already garnered dozens of lawsuits and embroiled state lawmakers and independent redistricting commissions in controversy as Republicans and Democrats wrestle for control of state legislatures and Congress.

“Your voice, your thoughts and your ideas are absolutely vital to this process,” Hewitt said. “It’s our goal to take the information you provide to us and to use it as we begin the process of drafting redistricting plans.”

Republican state lawmakers have commanding majorities in both the House and Senate and control the two committees tasked with drafting the district maps. But Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards can veto those maps as he sees fit, ensuring that his party will have some role in the redistricting process.

“I hope it’s not just a show,” Monroe native Vee Wright said. “Like you’re going all around the state listening to us, and then you go down to Baton Rouge and draw maps in a way that mucks everything up.”

Wright was one of the dozens of northeast Louisiana residents who weighed in on how lawmakers should draw maps for Congress, the Public Service Commission, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state legislature and possibly the state Supreme Court.

The vast majority of public comments during Wednesday’s meeting centered around residents’ desire for a second congressional district with a majority-minority population. According to the 2020 census, Louisiana’s population is 33% Black, but only one of the state’s six congressional districts has a majority-minority population.

Jared Evans, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said Louisiana’s history of racially-polarized voting and unfairly-drawn political districts amount to a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

“Here in Monroe, Black voters have no opportunity to elect their preferred candidate to Congress,” Evans said.”The congressional candidates preferred by Monroe’s Black voters are consistently defeated by candidates preferred by white voters.”

A coalition of 17 civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU of Louisiana and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, submitted a letter to the Governmental Affairs Committee that featured seven possible congressional maps that include two majority-minority districts. Five of those maps placed Monroe in a majority-minority district.

Most of those plans would significantly reshape the 5th Congressional District, which runs along Louisiana’s eastern border, covering Monroe, parts of central Louisiana and the Florida Parishes. The district is currently represented by Republican Julia Letlow.

Kay Katz, a former state representative from Ouachita Parish, said she hoped the 5th Congressional District would remain largely unchanged.

“We are a homogenous area,” Katz said. “We are all good folks in this area, we have the same problems, we think alike, we do a lot of things the same way, and District 5 seems to have been working very well.”

But as the 2020 Census data revealed, Louisiana’s 4th and 5th Congressional Districts are underpopulated as large numbers of Louisianans have abandoned rural north Louisiana in favor of larger suburban and urban communities farther south. According to Census data, northeast Louisiana’s 5th district has 4.77% fewer residents than the ideal district, and the 4th Congressional District in northwest Louisiana has 6.18% fewer residents.

Legislative Analyst Patricia Lowery-Dufour said all six congressional districts would have to be redrawn.

And the region will likely lose influence in the state legislature as well.

State law requires that all state House and Senate districts be no more than 5% more or less populous than the ideal district. Eleven of the 15 House districts and five of the six Senate districts in northeast Louisiana fall outside those parameters.

Melissa Flournoy, a former state representative and the head of the Coalition for Louisiana Progress, urged state lawmakers to value competitiveness, instead of incumbent protection, when they redraw state House and Senate districts.

“There are 52 people who ran for the legislature in the last cycle that ran unopposed,” Flournoy said. “We do not have interparty competition, and we have really affected our ability to compromise in the State Capitol.”

The Joint Governmental Affairs Committee will hold its next public hearings on the campus of LSU - Shreveport on Thursday night and Wednesday, Oct. 26 at the University of Louisiana - Lafayette.

Copyright 2021 WRKF. To see more, visit WRKF.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.

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