BATON ROUGE — A majority black district in northwest Louisiana looks like the first major casualty of war in the redistricting special session.
Under a plan by Republican leaders, House District 23, represented by Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, would be fragmented and absorbed by neighboring districts to accommodate a new seat in New Orleans.
Cox, an Army veteran who formed a human net to catch people jumping from a burning Pentagon on 9/11, made an emotional plea Monday to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee to spare his district.
“I've been in the war, and I've had to do a lot of killing and a whole lot of things,” Cox said. “But this bothers me more. I have not been able to rest. Because we have a collective group, a historic district where people have something to vote for the first time in over 300 years.”
Cox was testifying in opposition to HB 14, a proposal by House Speaker Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzalez. Cox is not a member of the committee, so he, like other members of the public, filled out a card, waited his turn and took the mic to fight back against the bill.
“That was the most difficult decision of this entire map,” Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, and the chair of the committee, said about moving Cox’s district.
Stefanski said House members told him that if a district had to be eliminated, they would prefer that it be one represented by a term-limited member.
The 2020 Census showed that northern parts of the state experienced significant population loss since 2010.
In the months leading up to the session, it seemed likely that north Louisiana would lose districts. Stefanski said that the decision was made to cut Cox’s district because of all the districts with the term-limited representatives in north Louisiana, it had experienced the most population loss.
Several other districts in the area experienced more severe population loss but are held by returning members.
To Cox, who has dealt with the trauma of war and of racial discrimination, this is yet another heartbreak.
“I’ve been chosen as a sacrificial lamb to be quartered, divided,” he said. “This kind of hurts me in my heart, that you would break my district up to this point where people look at me and ask me: ‘Why? Why would you do this? Why?’”
Cox’s district, which is majority black, will be split into surrounding districts where the black population will not come near 30 percent. Cox said that is voter suppression, arguing that his district is being “cracked,” a type of gerrymandering where minority constituents are spread into many districts primarily representing majorities.
“The 23rd district is for minorities so they will be represented, have the opportunity to stand up, but this is pressing them down, suppressing the vote,” Cox said.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, agreed. District 23 “was created for the purposes of giving minority voters an opportunity to select the candidate of choice,” Duplessis said. “If you take away that history, you're essentially cracking those voters by dispersing them into other districts where they will no longer have that opportunity to select the candidate of choice.”
New Orleans has gained population in recent years, and the district that would replace Cox’s would be a majority-minority district in the Mid-City neighborhood there.
Stefanski, who co-sponsored the bill with Schexnayder, argued that the GOP proposals for new district maps were legal.
Stefanski said he thinks they comply with Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or language.
The Republican plan would keep the number of majority-black districts at 29 of the 105 seats in the House. Some black lawmakers believe there should be several more majority-minority districts since African Americans make up nearly one-third of the state’s population.
Stefanski pointed out that two bills filed by black lawmakers — Duplessis and Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport — also would have had 29 majority-minority districts. Duplessis then said he would not present his bill, adding there should be more majority-minority districts.
The committee will continue the debate on Tuesday. The House panel and a similar Senate one both have advanced bills with just one majority-minority congressional district despite assertions by black leaders that there should be two.
Cox told The Advocate that his brother Johnny Cox, the mayor of Coushatta, had been planning to run for his seat.
When Cox spoke of his heartbreak at the hearing, Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, the second ranking Republican in the House, insisted that “it’s nothing personal.”
“I guess God wanted me to go through this,” Cox said. “I'm somewhat saddened and humbled by this, because in battle, somebody, somebody has to lose.”