Republicans and Democrats submit competing maps of Louisiana Senate districts

After weeks of working to reach consensus around a new map of Louisiana’s Senate district, Senate Speaker Page Cortez R-Lafayette finds himself faced with a competing proposal backed by 11 of his fellow Democrats.

Cortez, the most powerful lawmaker in the Louisiana Legislature, had been meeting with senators from both parties for weeks in an effort to reach a compromise on the Senate map ahead of the legislature’s special redistricting session.

Lawmakers thought the Senate proposal would be the least controversial they would consider during a three-week redistricting session, given all the talk about it beforehand,

Then, Senate Democrats filed a competing proposal on Monday.

“I only saw it last night, and I had no idea it was going to happen,” Cortez said in an interview Wednesday.

Senate Bill 17, championed by Sen. Ed Price de Gonzales, departs from Cortez’s proposal in two important ways. It would add two more majority black districts to the Senate, and it wouldn’t move a Senate district from Shreveport to the Northshore.

Senate Bill 1, the map of Cortez, is still the clear favorite to get through the redistricting process. Republicans make up two-thirds of the Senate and nearly two-thirds of the House of Representatives.

But Price’s card has an outside chance of appeal beyond the Democratic caucus.

Price’s proposal keeps District 37, currently held by Republican Senator Barrow Peacock, in the Shreveport area. Northwest Louisiana lawmakers from both parties are upset about losing a district to the southern part of the state in Cortez’s proposal.

“Whether the vote is there or not [to pass the map]we’ll have to see,” Price said in an interview.

Price said maintaining the Northwest Louisiana seat was coincidental. He tabled the card not because it kept a seat in the Shreveport area, but because it was the easiest way to increase minority representation in the Senate.

Civil rights groups have called on the Louisiana Legislature to increase the number of its majority black districts in both houses. Since political districts were last redrawn in 2010, the percentage of people identifying as a racial or ethnic minority has increased to over 40% of the state’s total population.

Specifically, the proportion of Louisiana residents who identify as white has declined by 6% over the past decade, and the black population – Louisiana’s largest minority – has increased by 4%.

Cortez’s proposal maintains the status quo for majority black districts in the Senate, keeping the number at 11 out of 39 seats. Price’s map calls for 13 seats to be majority black.

Louisiana Senate Speaker Page Cortez, left, presents his proposal for new state Senate districts Feb. 2, 2022, to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Democrats win two seats by swinging the endangered Senate district of Shreveport, held by Peacock, from majority white to majority black. They are also converting Senate District 17, held by Republican Rick Ward of Port Allen, to a majority black district.

Ward and Peacock are in their third consecutive terms in the Senate and cannot run for office.

Peacock declined to comment on either Senate proposal.

Ward said he was not concerned about moving his headquarters to a predominantly black district, although he was concerned that the composition of the proposed district would span too many different types of communities, from the more rural to the most urban. It could make the district difficult to represent, he said

Black Democrats, including Price, have asked Cortez why he didn’t increase black-majority districts in his proposal. Louisiana’s population is 33% black, but majority black districts make up only 28% of Senate seats on Cortez’s map.

Cortez said he doesn’t believe creating additional black-majority districts will necessarily translate into a better chance for black politicians to be elected. Dividing the black population into multiple districts could “dilute” the black community vote and potentially result in a less diverse Senate, he said.

Price’s proposition shows that this is not necessarily the case.

The proportion of black residents in most existing black-majority Senate seats would be similar under Cortez’s original proposal or Price’s map.

Price’s proposal results in a significant drop in the black population only in District 15 (74% to 61%), held by Senator Regina Barrow of Baton Rouge, and District 39 (61% to 55%), held by Senator Gregory Tarver of Shreveport. In either case, the districts would maintain a solid black majority population, even at the lower threshold proposed by Price.

Cortez also alleged that creating new black-majority districts would require gerrymandered maps that don’t hold communities of interest together — a stipulation of redistricting laws. He criticized Price’s map for having shaky policy lines.

Price’s map draws District 31, represented by Sen. Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches, with a hook that wraps around District 29, represented by Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria. His version of District 22, represented by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, would cover the Atchafalaya Basin, Cortez said.

Price’s map would also have political ramifications that Republicans might want to avoid. If there were 13 black-majority districts, Republicans would likely lose their two-thirds majority in the Senate. Some laws, such as constitutional amendments, require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Louisiana Senate redistricting map
A map of proposed Louisiana Senate districts submitted by Senate President Page Cortez R-Lafayette on Feb. 2, 2022, to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

There is also a feeling that moving a Senate seat from Northwest Louisiana to the Northshore is the right thing to do. Every senatorial district in northwest Louisiana is underpopulated, and Caddo saw the largest population decline in the state (17,000) of any parish. Meanwhile, the suburbs of Northshore and Baton Rouge saw a surge in population.

Still, Chris Kaiser of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said his organization would sue the Legislature if it approved Cortez’s original map. Kaiser said he does not believe the proposal meets federal suffrage standards for minority representation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear to be approaching redistricting with an eye on this lawsuit.

Democrats expect Price’s Senate map to die relatively early in the redistricting process, but they were expected to offer an alternative plan in order to bolster the ACLU’s prospects of a Louisiana lawsuit.

Cortez also plans legal action over the Senate plan, calling legal challenges “part of the process.”

“A lot of people want the judiciary to draw the maps,” he said.

Louisiana’s Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to vote on the proposed Senate maps this week. Cortez said more adjustments needed to be made to his proposal before it was considered.

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