Friday, April 8, 2011

Drawing the short straw

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 11:38 AM

When push comes to shove in a redistricting session, one of the first casualties is the inter-parish harmony that many lawmakers and local elected officials genuinely work hard to achieve. So it was with both the state House and Senate redistricting plans, which strained relations between Jefferson and Orleans parish officials to the breaking point.

There are many political cross currents in a legislative session, and those currents are particularly dangerous during the redistricting and reapportionment process. In the case of Jefferson and Orleans parishes, the overarching problem was the fact that both parishes stood to lose legislative clout after the 2010 Census. The sticking point was the question of who was going to lose more.

The problem was exacerbated, according to one Jefferson Parish source, by the fact that metro area parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines) collectively have enough population to warrant 20 House districts — but the plan that was moving through the process allocated only 19. That triggered a tug-o-war among area parishes to see who was going to draw the short straw. Or, in this case, the short district. Or two.

In the early going, that fate fell to Jefferson Parish, which, according to Jefferson Parish officials and lawmakers, historically has seen its voters’ clout diluted as a result of redistricting. This year, they say, they had had enough.

“Jefferson Parish suffered a population loss of 22,914, which is the rough equivalent of one-half of a House seat based on the ideal House population being 43,174,” says Rep. Tony Ligi, R-Metairie. “The House redistricting plan as presented by Speaker [Jim] Tucker provided that Jefferson Parish would lose two seats — a majority-Jefferson seat on the West Bank and a full seat on the East Bank. This plan thus provided for a disproportionate loss of representation for Jefferson Parish.”

Ligi authored an amendment that he hoped would remedy that loss, but he says he got no help from Orleans lawmakers, who were satisfied with Tucker’s plan. Consequently, Ligi says, he had to draw proposed Orleans districts on his own. When Gov. Bobby Jindal got behind the Ligi amendment late in the game, it turned into a bloodbath. Tucker, R-Algiers, was among seven Republican lawmakers who abstained when Ligi’s amendment was considered by the House. The amendment failed by two votes.

“At all times it was made clear to the Orleans delegation that we did not want to draw New Orleans districts and that their assistance in resolving the issue was welcomed, but that an amendment had to be submitted that addressed the disproportionate loss of representation being placed on Jefferson Parish by the Tucker plan,” Ligi said, noting that he has been “extremely supportive” of regional cooperation in the past. Referencing the harsh rhetoric that surrounded debate over his amendment, he added, “Hopefully this is not an indication that regionalism is acceptable only if it benefits the City of New Orleans.”

Going into the final three days of the special session, the redistricting plans for the House and Senate carve significant portions of Jefferson into districts dominated by adjoining parishes. For example, several precincts near Louis Armstrong Airport in Kenner (though not the airport itself) are in a House district dominated by St. Charles Parish voters, and huge swaths of black precincts on the East and West Banks are lopped into Senate districts dominated by Orleans Parish voters.

Elsewhere, state Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, will now have to run in the same House district as Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans. The newly configured House District 94 has 57 percent of its registered voters in Orleans Parish. LaBruzzo’s old district was wholly in Metairie.

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