By Piper Hutchinson
LSU Manship 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 that 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.
The Senate also rejected, in another party-line vote, an amendment by 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 that 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%. 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 that African Americans make up nearly 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 that 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 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 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 not be running 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 over thirty minutes.
On the House side, Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, gave emotional testimony Monday to save his minority-majority House district.
House Speaker Schexnayder’s map would eliminate the district, placing parts of it in surrounding districts with white representatives, to create a new majority-minority district in New Orleans.
“I’ve been in the war, and I’ve had to do a lot of killing and a whole lot of things,” said Cox, who cannot run for re-election due to the term-limit law. “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.”
Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley and the chair of the House committee involved in the process, said that moving Cox’s district “was the most difficult decision of this entire map,”
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.