DISTRICTS LOOK FUNNY

John Maginnis Wednesday, December 4, 2013 0
DISTRICTS LOOK FUNNY

This just in: Louisiana congressional districts look funny.

According to a new study by a “geospatial” software company, Louisiana’s congressional districts are among the least “compact” in the country.

The underlying notion is that less compact districts, which do not conform to traditional squares or circles with tidy, smooth borders, could be the result of political gerrymandering.

That tracks the popular claim by Democrats that Republican-led state legislatures, like Louisiana’s, conspired to gerrymander the most recent congressional redistricting to ensure long-term GOP control of the U.S. House.

This state’s 2nd District, represented by Congressman Cedric Richmond, ranked seventh out of 435 for being the least compact. Seven of the 10 least compact districts are in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

Truly, if drawn on a piece of paper, the 2nd looks a mess, squiggling north by northwest from New Orleans to north Baton Rouge. That it is a 63 percent minority district, surrounded by three very white Republican-held districts, follows the Democratic narrative that Republicans “packed in” African-Americans in order to make whiter the three adjacent districts: the 1st, 3rd and 6th.

Were politics played? Of course. What else do politicians play? But as in most games, it took two to play. In congressional redistricting, the players were the Republicans and black Democrats, both of whose numbers have increased dramatically in the last four reapportionments, at the expense of white Democrats, who, as the game ball, got kicked around a lot. The same goes for legislative redistricting.

If there’s something wrong with that, it’s not anything illegal. A long line of court decisions have banned discrimination by race in reapportionment, but have said it’s perfectly fine to discriminate by party. It’s the American way.

Yet, as the study concedes, there are logical reasons the 2nd offends geospatial sensibilities: the Mississippi River and the Voting Rights Act.

Regardless of political motives, the Legislature did a reasonable job drawing the district as it did.

The VRA doesn’t grant a pass for population dispersions caused by busted levees. So when thousands of New Orleans residents moved up the river to Baton Rouge and beyond after Hurricane Katrina, the new 2nd District followed them, retracing population patterns going back more than 200 years.

In terms of communities of interest, one can argue that north Baton Rouge residents have more in common with those in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans than with the denizens of the Country Club of Louisiana, on the south side of the capital city.

Those former 6th District residents were replaced by folks in the river and bayou parishes, most of them white. As a result, the 6th District, represented by a Democrat in 2008, is now redder than Red Stick. Republicans may have benefitted, but, ultimately, Katrina and the Corps of Engineers made it happen.

Some would say the state’s most gerrymandered district is the meandering 5th, which plunges from the Arkansas border down the delta, takes a hard left at St. Francisville and cuts across the top of the Florida parishes to Bogalusa. But its shape has less to do with partisanship or race than with the region’s demands to maintain two north Louisiana districts, one each based in Shreveport and Monroe. An alternative plan would have put both cities in an east-west district along Interstate 20.

With the 4th District approaching Lake Charles and the 5th Baton Rouge, by 2020, if the south keeps growing and the north doesn’t, there may be no escaping the I-20 alignment. If folks in Lafayette and Lake Charles can share a district, so can those in Shreveport and Monroe. That’s what happens when a state loses two congressional districts in 20 years, with most of the population loss occurring north of Interstate 10.

What would suit redistricting reformers — and provide more business for geospatial software companies — would be for states to follow the lead of California, which has an appointed non-partisan board to draw congressional and legislative districts. That might happen in Louisiana some time after it happens in every other state — and perhaps not then.

When and if it does, non-politicians will still have to grapple with community interests, minority rights and a landscape covered mostly by water, forests and cow pastures. What they come up with might not make any more sense or look any less funny than what our politicians have wrought.

 

Jindal Prefers Local Lawsuits

There’s a good reason Gov. Bobby Jindal responded so calmly to Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes’ suing of dozens of oil companies for coastal damage — in contrast to his ballistic reaction to a suit filed earlier by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E).

Yes, the parishes’ suits are brought by elected local officials instead of an appointed board. And yes, the parishes don’t have eye-popping contingency fee contracts with their attorneys as the flood authority does.

But the most compelling reason the governor doesn’t repudiate the parishes’ legal action against Big Oil is that it’s what he’s been waiting for.

The governor’s been heavily criticized by environmental and civic groups for his offensive against the SLFPA-E board, including his effective removal of its vice chairman, author John Barry, the eloquent and credible public voice for the legal cause.

Jindal was seen to be protecting the interests of the oil companies, when, actually, the interests he was protecting were his own. The unilateral action by the appointed state board, out of line with state policy toward the coast and the industry, was an intolerable affront to the power of the governor. Not to mention that, if the suit succeeded, Barry, not Jindal, would get the credit.

While the governor may seek to quash the flood authority’s lawsuit, his action shouldn’t be mistaken for siding with oil companies.

There are aha! moments and there are uh-oh moments. The latter came for oil firm attorneys and executives during the 2012 legislative session when they grew alarmed that Jindal didn’t back their legislation to rein in the plague of so-called oilfield legacy lawsuits. The governor seemed to be siding with big landowners and, by extension, their environmental attorneys, whom oil execs loath as the most rapacious of trial lawyers.

The leader of the lawyers, whose firm has filed the most oilfield damages suits, is Don Carmouche of Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, who happen to be the lead attorneys on the lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

The parishes’ suits have been likened to the dozens of legacy lawsuits Carmouche’s firm has brought on behalf of landowners in southwest and central Louisiana. They’re called “legacy” because the claims for damages often go back for decades to ensnare the major oil companies as defendants.

But the new suits differ in two important ways. Because they’re filed in the Coastal Zone, the potential damages, considering coastal erosion, are much greater. Also, instead of the parishes suing as landowners, they’re bringing action as the government regulators of development in the Coastal Zone. Sharing that regulatory authority is the state Dept. of Natural Resources.

The governor could have the state intervene and supplant the parishes as plaintiff. But there’s no need to do so. The administration can monitor the lawsuits as it nudges the parties toward a negotiated settlement. At that point, the two coastal parishes won’t be alone, for it’s likely that negotiations would lead to a global settlement that includes the flood protection authority and the potential claims of other parishes, levee boards and the state itself.

There’s only one person who can sit at the head of that bargaining table. And it’s not John Barry.

The governor doesn’t necessarily want to be seen as the one who starts this fight, but he’s bound to be there when it’s resolved.

Such a settlement could go a long way toward funding the state’s master plan for the coast, projected to cost $50 billion over 50 years. Not only would that secure Jindal’s reputation as a coastal protector, but it would also, nationally, establish his independence from and his power over the mighty oil industry.

The late great Russell Long once said that he could never be president because he was an oil state senator. There are other reasons Jindal won’t be president. But he can see to it that a cozy relationship with Big Oil won’t be one of them.

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