Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Redistricting and Louisiana Apartheid

The incredible news regarding Governor Bobby Jindal's appointments to the Board of Regents for Higher Education (BoR) is not just that all of the members he's appointed are white, but that he succeeded in making those appointments while paying no political cost for doing so.

The Legislative Black Caucus called out Jindal for his lily white, pay-to-play practices late last year, but the silence of white elected officials on this matter has been both appalling and — in a way — understandable.

Appalling because the notion that in a state with 37% minority population according to the just-released Census figure (32% Black and the other five percent comprised of Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and others) that the Governor could not find even one person of color in all of Louisiana qualified to serve on the BoR is so outrageous as to demand a public rebuke from anyone with a sense of moral decency. The real issue might have been that Jindal could not find a person of color who could meet his other apparent requirement — that candidates for seats on the BoR be willing to contribute at least $5,000 to the his re-election campaign.

Nonetheless, the silence of the white politicians, particularly Democrats, on the bleaching of the BoR is appalling. The party has spoken out recently, but that comes only after the facts were clearly established in the law suit against Jindal's proposal to merge Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) and the University of New Orleans (UNO) by the legal team led by former state Senator Cleo Fields.

The reason the silence of white legislators is, in a way, understandable is because Louisiana politics is once again segregated. A review of the voter registration totals from every district in both houses of the Legislature reveal this fact. In the Senate, 24 of the 39 districts there are divided racially by splits that are 70/30 or worse. That is, in 61.5% of the Louisiana Senate districts the racial minorities are too small to effect the outcome of elections held there.

The situation is worse in the House. There, 71 of the 105 districts there have racial splits among voters that are 70/30 or worse. That is, in 67.62% of the House districts in Louisiana, the racial minorities in those districts are too small to affect the outcome of elections there.

These patterns and the resulting dynamic in the Legislature are corrosive and destructive to representative democracy. The proof is in the pudding of Jindal's all-white BoR appointments.

This is Louisiana Apartheid

Apartheid is defined as "A policy or practice of separating or segregating groups." The word is Dutch and came to infamy as a set of white supremacist policies in the country of South Africa that collapsed in the late 1980s.

The Louisiana Legislature, as a result of the redistricting that took place in 2001 is a bastion of apartheid. That is, whites represent whites and blacks represent blacks. As the racial voting splits indicate, legislators elected from the vast majority of the districts in the House and the Senate have little or no reason to take into account the interests of the minority voting block in their districts. It cuts both ways — whites are small racial minorities in many minority majority districts.

Those segregated districts have produced a racially polarized Legislature that lacks the essential ingredient necessary for compromise in a legislative body — some understanding of the needs and interests of the other legislators and his/her constituents.

The Legislature that resulted from the 2000 Census and redistricting process has more Black faces in each chamber, but those lawmakers are less able to produce results. That is not a reflection on the ability of those Black lawmakers. It is, instead, a product of the fact that most white lawmakers in each chamber have little understanding of the needs of Blacks because Blacks are politically insignificant in their districts. Blacks play no relevant political role in those districts, just as whites play no significant role in many heavy minority majority districts.

The problem has worsened since the 2003 election when term limits began to drain both bodies of experienced legislators and the long-term acquaintances (even friendships) that served as the basis for conducting the business of legislating, which frequently involves alliance building and compromise.

Jindal's BoR Frog Boil

Since Bobby Jindal was took office in January 2008 he has had nine opportunities to nominate people to serve on the BoR and all of those nominees he produced were white. Interestingly, there is no group shot of the BoR members on the organization's website. You have to click through on the name of each individual member in order to see who the members actually are.

Under the state Constitution, the Louisiana Senate is required to give its consent to the Governor's BoR appointees before they can officially take their seats. In that same section, the Constitution also states: "The board should be representative of the state's population by race and gender to ensure diversity."

The lawsuit seeking to block the study of the SUNO/UNO merger actually challenges the constitutionality of the the BoR as it has come to exist during Jindal's tenure because the all-white board violates that diversity provision. In court, former Senator Fields called other members of the Senate who voted on the original legislation that put the BoR constitutional amendment on the ballot to testify. The judge in the case ruled that "should" does not mean "shall" and effectively declared Jindal's racial bias to be legal.

This matter never should have gone to court because the Senate should not have allowed Jindal to appoint only whites to the BoR. The problem is that no white senator was willing to stand up to Jindal or stand with Black senators in calling out the Governor for racially biased nature of his appointments.

The reason for their silence has everything to do with the fact that most state senators represent districts that are essentially segregated. White senators in many instances do not have to pay attention to the interests of Blacks because there are not significant percentages of Black voters in their districts.

There are only 10 Black majority districts in the 39-seat Louisiana Senate. Two of those seats are actually held by whites (Francis Thompson from northeast Louisiana and David Heitmeier of the West Bank in the New Orleans area). By the time Jindal's whites-only pattern had become established, Black senators were the only ones willing to speak up and Jindal's denials of bias (despite the facts) seemed to assuage the other 31 members of the Senate.

Like boiling a frog, Jindal's transformation of the BoR from a demographically representative organization to a lily white one was done gradually and, by the time it was noticed, it was a done deal.

This Was No Accident

The bleaching of the BoR is the most blatant example of how Blacks have become marginalized in the Legislature. It is a process that has replicated itself in local governments in Louisiana, as well as legislatures across the South.

The kind of political segregation now evident in the Louisiana Legislature has spread across the South in recent years. It is, in fact, one part of the Republican 'Southern Strategy' of appealing to white voters.

In the 1980s, Republicans hit on a redistricting strategy that gave them the potential to use the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to their political advantage. The law was intended to ensure that Blacks were ensured fair opportunities to take part in governing in the nine Southern states where discriminatory racial practices tied to segregation had prevented them from doing so. Louisiana is one of the nine states covered by the Act.

Republicans came to realize that if they could encourage Blacks to maximize the number of Black majority districts and to encourage them to make them 'safe' districts, that the other result would be that predominantly white districts would become 'whiter' and more conservative. The strategy was first put into play across the South after the 1990 Census, and is covered in depth in the book "Race and Redistricting in the 1990's" by Bernard Grofman. "Maximizing black population districts would minimize black influence districts," Grofman wrote. "Minimizing black influence districts would maximize Republican electoral opportunities."

The "Black influence districts" mentioned by Grofman are those districts that, though having a majority of white voters, have large enough percentages of Black voters as to make them too important a block of voters for any candidate to ignore. The 2001 redistricting followed that formula to perfection, substantially reducing the number of Black influence districts and increasing the number of safe districts.

Former Representative Sherman Copelin told an audience at Southern University Law Center last week that he and Republican Representative Emile 'Peppi' Bruneau engineered the House plan that won approval in 2001. He also said that, in hindsight, it was a mistake. Copelin attributed the deal in part to the failure of white Democrats in the House at the time to work with Blacks on a common approach to redistricting.

Without question, the results have been disastrous for Blacks and for white Democrats. Both have been marginalized with white Democrats in either chamber of the Legislature are now an endangered species. It can all be traced back to the segregating of the districts that took place in 2001.

It Will Be Different This Time

Despite the fact that the Republican Party now holds majorities in both the House and the Senate and despite the fact that David Vitter's Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority stands poised once again to pour millions into electing Republican majorities that can last through all three election cycles that will be covered by this redistricting process (2011, 2015, and 2019), things can and must be different this time around.

The process is much improved in this cycle over in previous redistricting years. The House and Senate Governmental Affairs committees charged with handling the redrawing of maps for each chamber conducted a series of public hearings across the state, allowing for citizen input in the process. The process has been more transparent, but there has also been more public input in that process than at any other time in Louisiana's history.

The Legislature has also called itself into special session to deal with redistricting (this was the first time the Legislature ever called itself into session for any reason). That session will begin on Sunday, March 20 and can run through Wednesday, April 13.

Prior to the start of that session, the two committees are to meet jointly again for still more public input in the process.

These hearings, like the hearings out in the state, are crucial because they create the public record on the process which will be a critical component once the Legislature approves its plans to redraw the district lines in each chamber, as well as the state's six congressional districts, the Public Service Commission, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and, possibly, the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The reason that public record is important is because Louisiana is covered by the Voting Rights Act. Under Section 5 of the Act, any changes in election laws in our state must receive preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before they take effect. There is a widespread expectation that there will to be challenges filed to whatever plan emerges from the Legislature, particularly for the congressional districts and each chamber of the Legislature.

And this is where the biggest change in the redistricting process will likely show up. For the first time since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a U.S. Department of Justice run by a Democratic administration will conduct the review of Louisiana's redistricting plans.

The significance of this cannot be overstated, not because the Justice Department under the Obama administration is political, but because the Department under the previous Republican administrations were so overtly political. Recall for a moment the way the Bush/Cheney administration politicized the hiring of U.S. Attorneys? Do you think it only went that far?

The Department of Justice will also accept comments from the public during the preclearance review process.

Recognizing the Problem

There is ample evidence that Black legislators recognize the extent to which they have been politically marginalized and the role the 2001 redistricting process contributed to that.

At a redistricting seminar held at Southern University Law Center on March 3, representatives from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund discussed the role that packing, stacking and other vote dilution strategies have played in undercutting the effectiveness of the Legislative Black Caucus in the Louisiana Legislature, as well as the impact that has had at other levels of government.

While the message was well-received, it remains to be seen if Black lawmakers will accept the less polarized districts and find willing partners in either chamber to work towards more heterodox districts in the redistricting session.

If willing majorities are not found (and it certainly does not seem likely, considering the newly minted Republican majorities), then populating the public record with those alternate plans becomes vital to challenges that would be considered in the preclearance review conducted by the Department of Justice.

The bottom line is that this year's redistricting offers a path out of the political segregation that has come to characterize our politics and taint our Legislature. While the maps drawn by this Legislature will be important, by no means will they constitute the final word on the shape of legislative districts in our state for the coming decade.

The process will continue beyond the highly partisan, racially distorted interests and parameters of the Legislature. We must recognize that fact and understand that the ultimate audience for those of us who want political and legislative processes that reflect the ethnic diversity of our state is not limited to Baton Rouge and is not limited to Louisiana.

Our audience includes the U.S. Department of Justice. Our goal should be to convince them to approve only redistricting plans that are consistent with the principles and objectives of the Voting Rights Act and not to merely rubber-stamping the partisan-tinged plans likely to come out of the Legislature.

This is how Louisiana can advance towards the change we both need and seek.


zjimbo said...

First, I want to say the Judge's decision that "should" does not mean "shall" in the Constitutional mandate for diverse representation "by race and gender reflecting the State's population" seems to me to be a violation of the Judge's oath to "uphold the Constitution of the State of Louisiana" just as egregious as Jindal's refusal to follow one iota of that mandate. How can an all-white board of regents in any way follow that Constitutional provision? If there is wiggle room in "should" rather than "shall", still. the Constitution cannot in good conscience be totally flouted. If there is an appeal, I am confident this opinion will be overturned.

Next, I totally agree with the facts and opinions in this article. As a Democratic State Senator from 1991 until 2000, I went through a redistricting fight and managed to come up with a consensus plan for my Senatorial District in Southwest Louisiana (District 23) maintaining the racial diversity (about 31% black) which had allowed me to be elected before and then to run first in my two subsequent elections. Consequently I was able to forge strong partnerships with the Black delegation and get help from many of the Democrats with significant black minorities.

I witnessed many votes along strictly partisan lines (Republicans allied with the bluest of the Blue Dog (?Democrats?). However, our rare victories against the special interests would not have been possible without unanimous support of the Black Delegation and the courageous votes of the true Democrats among the white Senators.

We need a think tank to come up with concrete redistricting plans promoting the ideas in this article. Any ally in the Senate, black or white, would have access to a remarkable computer array of possible plans by simple request for access to the Senate redistricting computer array of possible redistricting plans. The request must be made by the Senator to Glen Koepp, the Senate Secretary, who is a very fair person.
That Senator could bring a computer-savvy person like Mike Stagg (there may be others but the person should be on top of his or her game with computers). The starting point for an overall plan with any realistic chance of success would be to get approval by the black delegation in both houses with emphasis on protecting not only the black districts but also the minority-influenced white districts. Once the strategy is undestood by all, then the petty bickering that usually surrounds the legislators' approach to redistricting can be set aside almost completely for the greater good. It would certainly be worth the effort and might salvage what is left of the shambles that the Democratic Party has become.

Jim Cox

Mike Stagg said...

Jim, the redistricting tools you mention are actually publicly available for free these days. A 20-year veteran of Microsoft, Dave Bradlee has created such a tool ("Dave's Redistricting Application") that uses current Census data to enable users to create their own maps.

The congressional district map shown on the front page of the newsletter was created using that application. Here's the link to the PDF version of the map:

I am now working on a state Senate map (it allows users to do this by controlling the number of districts involved) and hope to have something for review in a couple of days, as time allows.

The Louisiana Democratic Party needs to engage in this process. Our opponents have been working at this process a lot longer than we have.

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