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Redistricting plans debated in state Senate

The political distance appeared evident before a hearing yesterday as black leaders and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, engaged in discussions a few feet apart from each other. Photo by Alex Tirado / LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — Black residents and civil rights groups on Wednesday objected strongly to a Republican proposal to redraw the districts for the state Senate, pushing for at least two more districts that would likely elect black candidates.

The concerns arose as Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, pitched his proposal to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, explaining it was based on technical strategies to ensure all districts match representation based on population.

But more than 80 people filled out cards signaling their opposition to Cortez’s proposed outline, 20 of them voiced their concerns to the committee.

Some supported an alternative proposal by Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, who would redraw the maps to include two more districts than Cortez’s plan — one in Shreveport and one near Baton Rouge — that would include a majority of black voters.

The 2020 Census showed an increase in minority population in Louisiana and a small decrease in white population.

But Cortez’s proposal, Senate Bill 1, would leave the number of likely minority seats at 11 of 39 in the Senate. Price’s proposal would increase that number to 13 to align more closely with Census data showing almost a third of the state’s population is black.

“Because Senate Bill 1 basically preserves the status quo, we believe that it really doesn’t increase the black representation that we need,” said Chris Kaiser, the advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

Constituents packed not only the hearing room but also an overflow room.

Committee members and minority advocates said Cortez’s plan reduced the opportunities for black representation in the Senate.

“We, as people of color, are a third of the state, and I think we should be heard,” said Shreveport Rev. Asriel McLain. He said that Louisiana is “shaped like a boot proudly, but, statistically, we are at the bottom of the shoe.”

“If the population of the minority is increasing and the population of the majority is decreasing, then why shouldn’t we look at the possibility of adding another minority district?” said Price, who sits on the governmental affairs committee.

But Cortez said he did not think this approach was legitimate as data shows a very low voter turnout from minority voters in rural areas.

“The minority is going to have a higher number of voting age population, but they won’t vote,” Cortez said. “They won’t elect the candidate of their choice, and that’s a violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

Cortez said the Senate would have to gerrymander districts to create more minority-majority ones.

At one point, Cortez also commented that the redistricting process is “the ultimate exercise of the herding of cats, but it’s the only time that all the cats care.”

Price argued that the federal Voting Rights Act specifically addresses giving voters the opportunity to elect their desired politicians.

“Opportunity is all we can ask for,” Price said. “It is up to the person in that district to get out there and make sure that its constituents come out and vote.”

However, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the chairwoman of the committee, reminded the members and constituents that opportunity can be defined differently.

The idea of equal opportunity for minority voters continued to arise as frustrated advocates demanded more representation for minorities, warning the senators of lawsuits and the possibility of leaving the state altogether.

“If the state fails to draw maps equitably, I will probably consider leaving the state,” said Codee Jones, president of the Black Student Union at LSU. “My peers and I can’t take these unfair practices any longer.”

Jones was not the only student who contested the bill. Several students from Dillard University, Southern University, Tulane and LSU also demanded change to the maps.

“These communities have to be fairly represented,” said Spencer Jones, a junior at Dillard University. “Our voices are necessary during the redistricting process as this will affect us well into our adulthood. … Will you prioritize the future of the state of Louisiana?”

One speaker claimed that the advocates’ arguments were not a priority to Cortez and the committee as only three committee members were present when he spoke. He also said Cortez was constantly looking at his phone during the session.

“This isn’t a dispute of political morality on either side of the isle,” said DeAndré Bell, a Dillard University student. “So what exactly do you have to lose?”

The committee, which is charged with initiating the redistricting process in the Senate, expects to vote on the maps in the next few days and send its recommendation to the Senate floor.


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