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Congressional seats unchanged by Senate panel

Sen Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, sponsored a Republican bill to keep only one of the state’s six congressional districts with a majority of Black voters. (Photo by Sarah Gamard / LSU Manship School News Service)

BATON ROUGE — The state Senate on Tuesday advanced a Republican plan to keep only one of the state’s six congressional districts with a majority of black voters despite complaints from Democrats there should be two.

Tensions were high on the floor as lawmakers debated how to redraw the maps for congressional and state Senate districts to reflect population changes in the 2020 Census.

The GOP bill, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, passed 27-12, with all Republican senators supporting it and all Democrats opposing it.

In another party-line vote, the Senate also rejected an amendment by state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, that would have changed the maps to allow for two majority black districts.

Fields said only five black people who have been elected to Congress from Louisiana since reconstruction.

“Louisiana has elected more white congressman in one year than it has elected black congressmen in history,” he said.

Hewitt said it was possible that Fields’ plan could backfire and provide less minority representation, as both of Fields’ proposed majority black districts had voting age populations around 52 percent. Her argument was that low black turnout in those elections could enable white candidates to win.

Fields disagreed, saying the federal Voting Rights Act requires giving black residents a chance to elect two minority representatives.

The Census showed African-Americans make up almost one-third of the state’s population, while the white population has declined slightly.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, could veto the congressional maps if the Republican-led House agrees with the Senate version. Civil rights groups have said they might sue if the Legislature does not create two majority-minority districts.

Sparks also flew between Hewitt, the chairwoman of a key Senate committee, and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, over Hewitt’s hiring of a law firm to advise her on redistricting.

Peterson wanted to know why that was kept from Democrats and why the firm’s services were not available to all members.

Senate President Page Cortez, D-Lafayette, said no public money had been spent on the law firm, but he did not disclose how it had been paid.

There also was conflict Tuesday between Peterson and state Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, over the proposed maps for state Senate districts.

Henry proposed an amendment to move three precincts that include Tulane and Loyola universities from Peterson’s district to his. Peterson is term-limited so will will be unable to run again.

Peterson objected to major economic engines like the two universities being moved, saying they were the core of her district. Peterson also claimed that Henry wanted to move the precincts because his sister lives in one.

“He had already indicated to me that he couldn't pass up the opportunity to represent his own sister, which he shared with us,” Peterson said. “That is not a basis for redrawing a district.”

Henry acknowledged that his sister was in one of the precincts but did not say that was why he wanted them.

Peterson’s attempt to kill Henry’s amendment failed but not before the two debated for more than 30 minutes.


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