“Cracking, Stovepipes and Gerrymandering: Redistricting in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina”

By Trupania Bonner

Nearly six years ago, the African American community in Greater New Orleans suffered a devastating and disproportionate blow from Hurricane Katrina, as the storm’s wrath and subsequent failures of relief and recovery programs drove thousands of minority residents from their neighborhoods and delayed their timely return to the only homes and livelihoods many had ever known.  Now the state’s legislators want to punish these long-suffering but resilient Louisiana citizens once again, by approving a redistricting plan for the State Senate that weakens the political clout of these residents in the halls of power, thereby diminishing even further any chance for a full and fair recovery for all communities.

The magnitude of the region’s population loss in the wake of Katrina became clear with results from the 2010 Census.  The enumeration recorded a population of roughly 344,000 for New Orleans, down almost 30 percent from its pre-storm level. New Orleans lost roughly 140,000 residents overall, 118,000 were African American. Yet the minority population across the State grew. With political representation constitutionally tied to population shifts among and within states, the loss cost Louisiana a seat in the U.S. Congress and threatened The Big Easy’s political influence in Baton Rouge, and alas, this Redistricting process is the nail in the coffin to a fair and just recovery for New Orleans post-Katrina.

With off-year elections forcing the legislature to follow a tight timetable for redistricting based on the new census data, the Senate moved quickly and, perhaps not surprisingly, stealthily to consider a plan put forth by chamber President Joel T. Chaisson II (D-Destrehan) that would reduce the number of majority-minority Senate districts in New Orleans from five to three.  The Senate did little to inform Louisianans of their right to submit alternative plans for consideration and ignored testimony gathered from residents around the state about the cultural and economic characteristics that bind them together, a key factor for consideration in drawing district boundaries.  Instead, Sen. Chaisson bemoaned the alleged lack of options when he pushed his plan through the chamber by a vote of 27-12 in late March.

It is just this sort of disregard for the rights of minority citizens that has subjected Louisiana to heightened scrutiny of its redistricting plans (both federal and state) under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice are examining both the process and results of Senate Bill 1, to determine if lawmakers followed rules that promote meaningful community involvement and protect minority voters from plans that unnecessarily weaken their ability to elect candidates who best represent their interests.

There’s a reason that no member of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus supported the bill: By abolishing the current District 2 (Eastern New Orleans, Lower 9th Ward), and spreading its population among three districts covering as many parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, St Bernard), the new map clearly diminishes and dilutes the votes of minority residents and all but eradicates their opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.

Supporting an alternative solution offered by her constituency and advisors, Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis (D-Orleans) proposed an alternative redistricting map as evidence that the Senate could comply with requirements of the Voting Rights Act and save a majority-minority Senate seat in Louisiana. Dubbed “The People’s Plan”, Senate Bill 33 would preserve four out of five majority-minority districts in New Orleans.  Notably, the Willard-Lewis proposal would keep the current 2nd District — which the census showed is growing faster than surrounding areas — intact, avoiding the obvious “cracking” of communities of interest in the Chaisson plan; the latter’s treatment of eastern New Orleans’ would so blatantly marginalize minority voters that Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, for whom the infamous practice of political “gerrymandering” was named, would have been proud to call this “octopus-shaped” district his own.

Lawmakers who supported Senate Bill 1 have chosen to draw districts that best protect their political futures instead of creating a map that maximizes the ability of all communities, especially those that have been marginalized historically, to elect representatives of their choice.  Fair-minded residents of Greater New Orleans and all Louisiana communities should let their elected officials know that a full and just recovery from the 2005 catastrophe depends substantially on redistricting plans that put people — not politicians — first.

Trupania Bonner is Executive Director of Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc., a community-based, advocacy organization with a mission to build stronger communities of Color with sustained civic engagement around the protection of human rights.

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