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Carving Up the Parishes 

Jeremy Alford on the greed and ambition behind the redistricting battle in Baton Rouge

"I'm told we can't make it fit. I say 'bull,' and something that rhymes with 'fit.'"

— Rep. Ernest Wooton, No Party-Belle Chasse

Some senators stood watching. Others were seated or grabbing a cup of coffee just off the Senate floor. Most couldn't help but laugh at the rookie-on-rookie action taking place behind the shared microphone on the podium.

  "Did you ever eat any bad gumbo, any bad boudin, anything like that, left you a bad taste in your mouth with the Acadian people?" Sen. Norby Chabert, a first-termer who was reared on the banks of Bayou Little Caillou asked Sen. Neil Riser, a fellow Republican from the north Louisiana community of Columbia. "Was it the food?"

  Sen. Neil Riser, a fellow Republican from the north Louisiana community of Columbia, snapped back. "It wasn't the food."

  At one point in the redistricting session, Riser's plan for Louisiana's soon-to-be-six congressional districts kept most of Acadiana together — but lopped off Acadia, Jefferson Davis, St. Landry and St. Martin parishes and fed them to congressional districts represented by men from Shreveport and Monroe.

  That idea led Chabert to describe the "Cajun people" as the "unspoken majority" in Riser's plan. Truth was, Riser wasn't alone in slicing and dicing Acadiana. Practically every major piece of legislation that was put on the move in recent weeks did the same, often in unsavory fashion.

  The neighboring parishes of Terrebonne and Lafourche were on the chopping block often. Practically every proposal put them into different congressional districts, even though they've been in the same district for 190 years and share a media market, intergovernmental operations and secondary education partners.

  Last week, several lawmakers in the House from the Lafayette area — GOP Rep. Page Cortez, Democratic Rep. Rickey Hardy and others — took to the floor and in their native Cajun French denounced various plans. It was partly a cultural exposition and partly an expression of political solidarity.

  Why did Acadiana feel so put upon? Call it political gentrification — a process by which the "haves" move in and push out the "have nots." A few examples:

  • North Louisiana — Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republicans want two North-South districts that protect Congressmen John Fleming, R-Shreveport, and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman. Democrats and a few GOP lawmakers prefer an East-West district along I-20. The Dems' plan would enhance minority voting strength in north Louisiana — and avoid colonizing south Louisiana parishes.

  • Coastal Louisiana — Terrebonne and Lafourche anchor the 3rd Congressional District, currently represented by Congressman Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia. Landry has been thrown into a district favoring Congressman Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette. Louisiana must lose one of its seven congressional seats, and the 3rd District, which lost population after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is the odds-on favorite to get chopped up.

  • The Feds — Louisiana is covered by the Voting Rights Act, which seeks to ensure that minority populations are afforded a chance to elect a representative of their choosing. Basically, the Voting Rights Act primes everything, as the state must submit all redistricting plans to the U.S. Justice Department.

  What's missing? Acadiana, basically. For example, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees redistricting in the Upper Chamber, has no Cajun members.

  Then there's race. The latest census revealed that African-Americans account for 32 percent of Louisiana's population — yet lawmakers failed to pass a plan that gives black citizens a second congressional seat. Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, pulled no punches when pushing a plan with two minority seats. "I think it's pretty obvious this is not an incumbent protection plan," she said.

  All of this might prompt some folks to think back to early 2009, when the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based good government group, recommended the state create a special commission accountable to the public to guide redistricting. That would have kept much of the politics out of the process, which probably sounds like a great idea to a lot of people right now.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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