BATON ROUGE — Sparks flew between lawmakers and high school students at a House redistricting committee hearing Wednesday.
A group of teenagers trekked from Shreveport, missing a day of class, to testify in front of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee against a Republican redistricting bill that would not increase black representation in the state House of Representatives.
Kingson Wills, Sabrina Huynh and Ryan Wilkinson took the stand contested what they called racial gerrymandering. They were met with pushback from state Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, committee chairman.
Stefanski pursued a tough line of questioning against the trio, first asking them to identify a district on a proposed House map that had been gerrymandered and to tell him where it was.
Wilkinson identified House District 23. Under the proposal put forward by House leaders, the Natchitoches-based majority black district would be broken up and absorbed by mostly white districts nearby to accommodate plans for a new majority-minority district in New Orleans.
Stefanski pushed back on the claim, as his proposal did not have House District 23 in northwest Louisiana.
“Oh yeah, because y’all gerrymandered it,” Wilkinson retorted.
Stefanski then asked the 18-year-old high school senior to define gerrymandering and to tell him details of the demographics of District 23.
At that point, the majority black audience began to engage in “call and response,” a common practice in the black community in which members of a crowd echo a speaker’s sentiments, to protest the teen’s treatment.
Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who was chairing the committee at the time, intervened to ask the crowd to quiet down.
“This is not choir practice,” Magee said. “If it’s going to be disruptive, we will ask members to leave. And then if you keep being disruptive, you will be forced to leave.”
Stefanski later apologized to the high school students for questioning them so harshly.
“I apologize if it came off as a little aggressive for you,” Stefanski said. “Sometimes, we get high strung. Sometimes, we get into tense situations.”
Autumn Sommers, another student who testified against the bill, was at the mic for Stefanski’s apology.
“Thank you, Rep. Stefanski,” Sommers said. “Please stop deflecting the questions and trying to interrogate teenagers.”
The committee ended up voting 13-4 to approve the Republican bill, HB14, which would maintain the current total of 29 of the 105 House districts as majority black. State Rep. Jeremy LaCombe. D-New Roads, voted with the Republicans, as did politically independent state Rep. Malinda White, of Bogalusa, to advance the bill.
Wills, who is co-chair of The People’s Promise Youth Division, an organization started in August to increase youth advocacy and participation in politics, objected in an interview after the hearing to the way the students were treated by Stefanski.
“He came from a position of power, and as an adult; and thought that we, as a youth, didn’t know what was really happening,” Wills said.
The youth group was one of several civil rights and advocacy organizations participating in a “Redistricting Takeover” at the Capitol Wednesday.
A crowd of more than 30 activists from across the state held “It’s about us” signs and shouted chants before heading into session.
“What do we want? Fair Maps! When do we want it? Now,” the crowd chanted in between speeches from black political leaders.
The 2020 Census showed almost a third of the state’s population is black, leading black leaders to seek additional seats that would better assure a black was elected in the state Legislature, Congress, and state boards and commissions.
The bill to redraw the House districts is scheduled to be taken up by the full House Friday.
Amid the tensions at the hearing, there was agreement among legislators in both parties about how dedicated Stefanski and his staff have been in speaking and listening to all 105 House members about their preferences.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans and vice chair of the committee, advocated for Stefanski’s sincerity and dedication to include all parties in redrawing the House maps.
Sommers, who is co-chair of the youth group, disagreed in an interview.
“A lot of people are saying he (Stefanski) did his best drawing the maps,” Sommers said. “... You can put your full effort toward something, it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Wilkinson agreed with Sommer’s assessment.
“It’s like if you asked students to grade their own tests,” he said. “If all students failed their tests, but then they graded their own and gave themselves A’s … well, that’s what they’re doing in redistricting,” Wilkinson said.
Duplessis acknowledged that the process had flaws.
“No matter how well we all try to do individually to serve our districts and to serve the state of Louisiana, the fact that we draw our own district lines is an inherently flawed process,” Duplessis said.
Among the crowd were students from West Jefferson High School in Harvey outside New Orleans. One of the coordinators of the field trip, Jacqueline C. Jones, hoped that the students could learn about the importance of the democratic process.
“We are fighting for fair and equitable maps,” Jones said. “Many of these kids live in communities of color and they see what happens and that we don’t have the representation that stays true to our interests.”
“A lot of people that have gray hairs in their heads, they’re not going to be here to see what the changes they make really do,” Wills said. “This is our future in their hands.”