Sunday, May 2, 2010

What's Wrong With Elbert Lee Guillory?

Democrats across the state have been asking that question about Opelousas Senator Elbert Lee Guillory since February when he leant his name to a Louisiana Senate reapportionment proposal produced by the conservative Louisiana Family Forum Action (LFFA).

The plan uses the cover of maintaining racial continuity in the Senate to advance a plan that would fundamentally alter the political tilt of the Senate. Under the plan put forward by Guillory and the LFFA, the Senate would become more conservative, more racially polarized and less likely to be sensitive to the needs of African Americans.

In terms of the color of the people holding the 39 seats in the Senate, things would look pretty much as they do now if this plan were to be enacted. There are 10 African American majority districts in the Senate now, held by eight African Americans and two whites. Under the Guillory/LFFA plan, there would be 10 African American majority seats, but fewer of those would be in New Orleans due to the population loss (the plan uses 2008 Census Bureau estimates of population in Louisiana) resulting from the flooding that followed Katrina.

But that visual continuity would conceal a fundamental shift in the ideological underpinnings of the politics of the Senate that the plan would set off.

Guillory and LFFA couch their plan in terms of “Demographic Equity” but a closer look at what the plan’s potential impact shows that it would make moderate Democrats (and independents) endangered species. It is probably just a coincidence that the only districts eliminated by the plan are held by term-limited Democrats (District 29 now held by Joe McPherson and District 17 held by Robert Marionneaux, Jr.). Or that term-limited Democratic Senate President Joel Chaisson’s district gets completely reconfigured and converted from a district with a 67% majority to one that has a 80% white majority.

The long-term impact of such a plan cannot be overstated as the reapportionment that will take place in the spring of next year will affect three statewide election cycles — 2011, 2015, and 2019 — before the results of the 2020 Census set the table for a new round.

Conservatives and Republicans are playing for keeps on reapportionment this year. That’s what the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (LCRM) effort was about in 2007. The Guillory/LFFA plan, in fact, appears to target senators that the LCRM worked to defeat in 2007. This is a coordinated attack for which Guillory is the front man.

There are hints in his campaign finance reports that this is no accidental combination.

Despite the name of their venture and their lofty rhetoric, the Guillory/LFFA plan would actually under represent African Americans and other minorities in the Senate. African Americans account for at least 30% of Louisiana's population. Applying that percentage to the 39 seats in the Louisiana Senate would mean that there should be at least 12 African American majority districts in a plan that was truly interested in Demographic Equity.

But that would only matter if Guillory and his friends at the LFFA were actually interested in such equity. That's just their cover story. What this is really about is ridding the Louisiana Senate of Democrats and moderates.

Clearly, Elbert Lee Guillory has signed on to help Republicans capitalize politically on the impact of the storms of 2005. The LCRM, to their credit, never made a secret of their intent. The Guillory/LFFA effort is more cynical because of the way it hides behind the language of racial equity to advance a fundamentally conservative agenda that most benefits the party that has built its power in Louisiana by working against the interests of African Americans.

Racial Gerrymandering

The Guillory/LFFA plan makes explicit the way that conservatives across the South have used racial gerrymandering to produce state legislatures that are at the same time more diverse but more conservative.

To understand how this works in Louisiana, it is necessary to understand how white Democrats get elected to office here. In the post-Voting Rights era in Louisiana, whites have abandoned the Democratic Party in large numbers. Those losses have been offset by the rapid growth of African American voters during the same period. For a time, something like a law of political thermodynamics — for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction.

Edwin Edwards built the model that still mostly holds for white Democrats to win election: get about 1/3 of the white vote and carry a large percentage of the African American vote. That formula has begun to unravel (see the Fourth and Sixth congressional district elections in 2008), as African Americans have grown tired of waiting for white Democrats to return the political loyalty that has been expected of them.

While the formula held white Democrats who intended to stay in office under the party label had to pay attention to the needs and interests of the African Americans in their districts. After passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1982 (which built on the earlier landmark legislation of 1965), Republicans began to recognize that the push for minority majority districts in legislatures could be made to work to their advantage. Starting with reapportionment efforts following the 1990 Census, Republicans embraced racial gerrymandering. They furnished black caucuses across the South with redistricting software and encouraged them to pursue maximizing the number of minority majority districts.

The results have been that there are more African Americans in legislatures across the South, including Louisiana. At the same time, though, those legislatures have become more conservative, owing in no small measure to the fact that the creation of minority majority districts also resulted in the creation of majority districts that were more white. Legislators whose districts don't have significant minority populations in them can afford to ignore the interests of those voters.

That's what has happened across the South. It's happened in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Death to the Blue Dogs

"A blue dog Democrat is a Republican with blacks living in his district," according to Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. Under the Guillory/LFFA plan, Blue Dog Democrats are headed for extinction.

Across the board, the Guillory/LFFA plan makes white majority districts whiter and black majority districts blacker.

Two districts currently represented by Democrats make the case clear. District 20 Democratic Senator Norby Chabert won a hotly contested special election in 2009 against a Republican candidate employed by LCRM heavy hitter Gary Chouest. According to the Secretary of State's office, voter registration in the district which includes parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes is about 81% white and 19% African American.

Under the Guillory/LFFA plan, the composition of the district jumps to 88%/12%. It looks pretty clearly that the plan has targeted Chabert by moving minority voters out of the district.

Eric LaFleur won election to the Senate 28 District seat in 2007. That district (which was previously represented by Dr. Don Hines of Bunkie) currently has a 74%/26% white/black voter composition.

LaFleur, who headed the House Caucus and led the fight against the LCRM's efforts to take over the House in 2007, was the target of LCRM opposition spending in his campaign. It took three amendments of that campaign finance report before LaFleur's name finally appeared on the list of those targeted for defeat. Here's the original. Here's the first amended report. Here's the second amended report.

It happens across the board. Seats currently held by white Democrats get whiter. Or get eliminated all together.

In Orleans Parish, Guillory/LFFA consolidates the five Senate districts there into two. Here are their words:
The Guillory/LFF Action plan acknowledges the unfortunate loss of population in the Metro area and recognizes that Orleans Parish can no longer support five senate districts.
The districts in the surrounding parishes are kept mostly in tact. Senator David Heitmeier sees his District 7 from a black majority district (38.5% white/61.5% black) flipped to having a 60% white majority. Senator John Alario's District 8 goes from 60% white to 64% white. Both Democrats will have tougher re-election races (particularly Heitmeier) because of these shifts.

The point here is not to evaluate the voting records of these senators, but to point out that they have been targeted for the crime (in the eyes of the Guillory and LFFA) being Democrats.

If this was taking place in a district or two, it might be considered accidental. The fact that it is a starkly recognizable pattern reveals this plan to be a naked attempt at a power grab by conservatives, with Guillory abetting their effort by giving it the patina of credibility that it could not otherwise muster.

The Costs of Racial Gerrymandering

There is a significant cost to pay for racial gerrymandering, like all forms of racial separation. The idea that only members of a race can represent the interests of a race was precisely the approach to life and politics that the Civil Rights movement was about ending.

The resulting political isolation of this approach to politics makes us strangers in our own land. Whites and blacks both benefit from the exchange of ideas. That familiarity makes demonizing less possible.

How are the interests of African Americans going to advance in the Louisiana Legislature if there are ten black senators serving with 29 whites who don't have any political reason to pay attention to the arguments being made by those senators because those whites don't have any significant number of minority voters in their districts?

But, advancing the interests of African Americans is not the LFFA's intent; it is, instead, advancing ideology. If advancing the interests of African Americans is Guillory's intent, he's either being badly used, duped, or playing way out of his depth.

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