Monday, April 22, 2024

U.S. House Speaker Johnson, Gov. Landry split on new congressional districts

by BIZ Magazine

Author says ‘politics drove the map’ that slashes Graves’ safe seat

PIPER HUTCHINSON | Louisiana Illuminator

Wary of losing Republicans’ tenuous grip on the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson threw a wrench into the Louisiana Legislature’s redistricting endeavors Tuesday.

Johnson, a Bossier Parish Republican who was unexpectedly thrust into the speakership earlier this year, released a statement that condemns the map Gov. Jeff Landry prefers. It includes two majority-Black districts out of the state’s six U.S. House seats. Johnson called for a federal court to rule on a plan the legislature approved in 2022.

Black voters have sued to stop that map, which retains only one majority-Black district. Over the past two years, federal courts have debated whether the case should move forward without ruling on the map itself.

“We’ve just seen, and are very concerned with, the proposed Congressional map presented in the Louisiana Legislature,” Johnson said in a post on X. “It remains my position that the existing map is constitutional and that the legal challenge to it should be tried on merits so the State has adequate opportunity to defend its merits. Should the state not prevail at trial, there are multiple other map options that are legally compliant and do not require the unnecessary surrender of a Republican seat in Congress.”

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which was slated to discuss the Landry-preferred redistricting plan, did not begin work Tuesday at its scheduled 11 a.m. start time. Its members convened an hour later, when the meeting started with an announcement that Senate Bill 8, Landry’s preferred bill sponsored by Sen. Glen Womack, R-Harrisburg, wouldn’t be discussed until the afternoon.

Several committee members said Johnson’s pushback could be a hurdle for the map, which both chambers must approve before the special session ends at 6 p.m. next Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick has given lawmakers until Jan. 31 to redraw the map with two majority-Black districts and has said she would take over if the legislature won’t draw the lines itself.

Johnson’s statement was read into the record by former state Rep. Woody Jenkins of Central, a far-right GOP member who leads the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party. Johnson’s office has not clarified whether the U.S. House speaker asked Jenkins to do so.

Much of Johnson’s opposition stems from not wanting to give up a safe, majority-Republican district while the balance of the U.S. House — and therefore his speakership — hangs by a thread. Republicans have 220 members to Democrats’ 213, and 218 members are required for a majority.

Johnson is not the only Republican member of the Louisiana delegation upset with Landry’s preferred congressional redistricting proposal. Rep. Garret Graves, whose 6th District has been carved up to make new boundards, released a scathing statement condemning the map.

“Legislation introduced today proposes to do what no Louisiana leader, nor Mother Nature, have ever been able to do: connect the Ouachita River Basin to the Amite River Basin,” Graves wrote of the district that stretches from Caddo Parish in the northwest corner of the state to East Baton Rouge Parish, running across the middle of the state.

U.S. Rep Troy Carter of New Orleans, the delegation’s sole Democrat, issued a statement explaining his support for all maps that create a second Black-majority district.

“At first blush, it appears the Womack map does so,” Carter said.

Activists close to the case to overturn the 2022 congressional redistricting plan say Carter has been a substantial force behind the scenes and stands behind Johnson’s opposition.

The Womack bill is the only congressional redistricting proposal to make it out of committee so far. The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced it unanimously.

Earlier in the day, the committee rejected a map Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, put forward that turns the 5th Congressional District, which U.S. Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Monroe currently holds, into the majority-Black district.

With Landry’s support, Republicans helming the redistricting process seem poised to soldier on with Womack’s plan. But even if the legislature approves it, Womack’s plan, sometimes referred to as a “slash map,” could face problems.

The second majority-Black district in Womack’s plan is similar to one federal courts rejected in the 1990s as an unlawful racial gerrymander.

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said the map still has Landry’s full backing.

Plaintiffs in the 2022 lawsuit could trigger a federal trial on the merits of the Womack plan, if approved. But Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, D-Baton Rouge, one of the plaintiffs, said he believed the group would not object to Womack’s plan if an analysis showed its two majority-Black districts would elect candidates Black voters preferred.

In a hearing today, Womack said analyses had not yet been conducted to see how the districts would perform.

When asked by Senate and Governmental Committee chair Sen. Cleo Fields what his motivation was for reshaping the 6th Congressional District into a majority-Black one, Womack said “politics drove the map” and that he wanted to protect Johnson, U.S. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Letlow, the delegation’s sole woman member.

Adam Dohrenwend, a geographer at LSU who researches gerrymandering, said approving Womack’s map might open the state up to other challenges.

“You can’t you can’t draw a map where race is the predominant factor,” Dohrenwend said. “It can only be one of a variety of factors considered. It appears to me like race is the predominant factor, so you’re using racial gerrymandering.”

Womack did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The maps plaintiffs in the 2022 lawsuit support — ones that Price and Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, have proposed — do not have these problems, Dohrenwend said. They are substantially more compact and split fewer parishes and communities of interest, he added.

Marcelle’s map is slated for a hearing Wednesday in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, where it is likely to face a similar fate as Price’s.

Womack’s bill goes next before the full Senate. Wednesday’s floor debate agenda for senators already includes a Louisiana Supreme Court redistricting proposal and the governor’s proposal for closed party primaries.

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