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Political livelihoods are officially on the line. Lawmakers begin a special session this week to tackle redistricting, a decennial policy extravaganza at which the lines demarcating one elected office from another are redrawn, shifted or entirely abolished — based on the latest U.S. Census numbers.
Congressional seats will be dramatically altered this go-around, starting with one that must be eliminated. Louisiana's population grew by only 1.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, one of the smallest increases in the nation. The impact will trickle down across the state, from the Louisiana Public Service Commission to local judicial districts.
First, however, legislators will have to reconstitute their own House and Senate districts. With 105 members, the House presents a tall order. The Senate has but 39 members, but the debate in both chambers promises to be spirited and eminently watchable.
Despite the high stakes and the imminence of the special session, the only thing coming out of the Senate in recent weeks was an eerie silence. That, of course, doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of jockeying going on behind the scenes. "I was handed a map by the Senate leadership not long ago and was told this was the plan," says one lawmaker. "I was under the impression we were supposed to be doing this in public."
Actually, the Senate for decades has been known for taking care of its internal business quietly, out of the public view. With far fewer members than the (at times) unruly House, it's easier to get things done behind the scenes.
Still, a sense that all is not well in the marbled halls of power is fueling something called the "Demographic Equity Plan," a redistricting model being pushed by a most unlikely team — the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), an influential Christian lobby that leans heavily Republican, and state Sen. Elbert Guillory, an African-American Democrat from Opelousas. Guillory is one of the few Dems who is sometimes referred to as a "DINO" — Democrat In Name Only. Until a few years ago, he was a registered Republican.
"We may not be a traditional pairing," Guillory says, sitting beneath a taxidermied deer head on the wall of LFF's Baton Rouge offices. "But it's a good marriage. We agree on the principles."
Interestingly, Guillory calls the plan the "Demographic Equity Plan," while LFF brass calls it the "Guillory Plan." The latest version of the proposed Senate remap was given to Gambit just days before the special session convened.
Among the principles, or rather perceptions, on which Guillory and LFF agree is that there's a "secret plan" being tossed around the Senate. Like the other lawmaker interviewed for this story, Guillory says he too was handed a map showing proposed lines. "I was told the Senate president is taking care of the Senate plan," he says. "I also suspect the public will never see this plan until the last minute. These are the kinds of plans put together by politicians wholly to protect their fiefdoms."
While that description applies at any level of local, state or national politics, Senate President Joel Chaisson, a Democrat from Destrehan, is term-limited and barred from seeking re-election. That, ostensibly, makes him an ideal sponsor of the new Senate plan. Moreover, Chaisson says he'll "absolutely" make sure every plan receives a full hearing. He admits that a plan has been floating around, but he describes it as "a starting point."
Interviewed last week, Chaisson said he was still working on his own Senate plan, which was to be filed last Friday (March 18), just two days before the session's opening gavel on Sunday.
LFF president Gene Mills, an ordained minister and part-time motivational speaker, says Chaisson's status as a term-limited lawmaker is among the reasons his group and Guillory are able to propose such dramatic changes. "That's really the only reason we can do this," Mills says. "Term limits are taking people out."
In fact, both Chaisson's plan and the LFF plan seek to obliterate the district of state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, a term-limited Livonia Democrat who chairs the tax-writing Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. But things aren't always as simple as they appear. For example, Marionneaux also sits on the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which must first approve any redistricting effort in the upper chamber. Four other members of the Senate are likewise term-limited: Sens. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City; Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth; Mike Michot, R-Lafayette; and Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles.
While the new LFF plan does little to change north Louisiana, it portends all kinds of drama for south Louisiana. It dilutes the power base long held by New Orleans by redistributing African-American districts away from the Crescent City (which may be inevitable on some level, given population shifts after Hurricane Katrina). And, at least on paper, the LFF plan makes it difficult for Democrats, particularly white Democrats, to win in most areas. When asked about the impact on his own party, Guillory just shrugs. "It very possibly does," he says. "But we in the black community need to decide who should truly represent us. There needs to be new relationships between African-Americans and the new powers that exist."
Who or what is the new power base? According to a statewide poll released last week by Louisiana State University's Public Policy Research Lab, approximately 58 percent of respondents identified themselves as "evangelical or born again." That segment of the electorate helped Gov. Bobby Jindal achieve his historic win in 2007 — and was a key element of former President George W. Bush's winning coalition.
And what does this new power base want? For starters, the LFF plan reverses the political fault line along the eastern I-10/I-12 corridor. Right now, there are 10 Senate districts in metro New Orleans and seven in the region from Baton Rouge to Slidell. The LFF plan upends those counts, adding a new white district to Baton Rouge proper and another to New Orleans. In fact, LFF proposes its most significant changes in New Orleans. Instead of five minority districts for the city proper, the proposal calls for three minority districts and one white district.
Then again, while LFF's new map would pit state Sen. J.P. Morrell against new state Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis, both Dems, just about any plan with a chance of clearing the Senate would do likewise.
Elsewhere in south Louisiana, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes would have their own Senate seats and Jefferson Parish would have a stronger hold on the area near southern St. Charles Parish, which is currently Chaisson's district and home base of support. There's obviously a lot of moving pieces to the LFF plan, and some of those with skin in the game are quite skeptical of the plan and its sponsors. "People like Mr. Guillory and the Family Forum, they have agendas," Chaisson says.
Guillory laughs at the suggestion, insisting he'll be a Democrat for life. Still, his agenda is no secret. "The rest of Louisiana can no longer be a junior partner to New Orleans in governing the state," he says. As for his own district, Guillory gets what he wants out of the LFF plan — more precincts in and around his St. Landry Parish base and enough black voters to keep his district in the "minority" column.
Mills acknowledges his plan reflects the LFF agenda, but he avers, "This plan has merit.
"There's a passivity in the Senate that's shocking to me," Mills adds. "We want more public input. That's why we're putting out this plan. And we admit too that this plan could change another 20 times. Nothing is set in stone."
On that last point they can all agree.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.