The Odd Couple

by Nathan Stubbs

Written by Nathan Stubbs
Wednesday, 03 March 2010

Democratic State Sen. Elbert Guillory and the religious-conservative group Louisiana Family Forum have teamed up with a plan for how to redraw state Senate district lines in advance of the 2010 census. Is this open, earnest policy making or a Trojan Horse for a hidden political agenda?

"It is an unusual combination," he says. "But this is not a Republican-Democrat thing. It's really not a black-white thing. And I think it's good because there's too much Democrat versus Republican and conservative versus liberal; it's time for people of different ilk to work together for the benefit of the people, and that's what we did in this case."

State Sen. Elbert Guillory recognizes that he and his latest political partner are a bit of an odd couple.

"It is an unusual combination," he says. "But this is not a Republican-Democrat thing. It's really not a black-white thing. And I think it's good because there's too much Democrat versus Republican and conservative versus liberal; it's time for people of different ilk to work together for the benefit of the people, and that's what we did in this case."

Guillory, a black Democrat from Opelousas, has partnered with the religious-conservative advocacy group Louisiana Family Forum Action in releasing a detailed plan for how state Senate lines should be redrawn following the 2010 census. The Legislature won't officially take up the business of reapportionment until next year, after the census numbers are in, but that isn't stopping Guillory and the LFFA from getting an early jump on the debate. Using the most recent census estimates from 2008, Guillory's and LFFA's so-called "Demographic Equity Plan" calls for redrawing districts in accordance with post-Katrina population shifts, with an emphasis on redistributing the state's 10 black-majority districts across the state.

The plan eliminates three existing majority black Senate districts - two of which are in New Orleans - and draws up three new minority districts in central Louisiana, Acadiana and one southwest of Baton Rouge surrounding St. James Parish. The new central Louisiana district would combine the southeast portion of Rapides Parish with parts of Avoyelles and Point Coupee parishes. Acadiana's new minority district would run horizontally from north Lafayette all the way east to pick up parts of West Baton Rouge Parish. This would also move Elbert Guillory's District 24 out of Lafayette entirely and redraw it as a five-parish horizontal sprawl running from southern Evangeline Parish across St. Landry and into parts of Iberville, West Baton Rouge and Point Coupee parishes.

Family Forum President Gene Mills explains the premise for the proposed redistricting on LFFA's Web site. "Today, only four of Louisiana's eight geographical regions have majority Black Senate districts," he writes. "This plan gives minority representation to other regions. Demographic equity is an idea whose time has come."

Despite this democratic pitch, the plan is generating no shortage of controversy from some of Guillory's Senate colleagues, who see the plan as an affront to New Orleans' long-established districts and as a Trojan Horse for a hidden Republican agenda that will turn a majority of redrawn Senate districts more conservative. Helping fuel that speculation is the fact that Guillory was a registered Republican as recently as 2006, and even served on the Republican State Central Committee, before switching parties and running for office.

"In my eyes, it's probably the most ridiculous, ill-thought-out plan I've probably ever seen," says Sen. J.P. Morrel. The New Orleans Democrat would be directly impacted by the proposal, which calls for consolidating his District 3 seat with District 2, currently represented by Sen. Ann Duplessis. In addition, the neighboring districts 4 and 5, represented by Sen. Edwin Murray and Sen.-elect Karen Carter Peterson, would also be consolidated. Morrel says that overall the plan reduces the number of senators representing the city of New Orleans from five to two. "I mean there's no question that New Orleans will lose possibly two House seats and probably a Senate seat [with reapportionment]," Morrel says, "but the wholesale consolidation they have spelled out in there is completely ill-thought-out."

"If you look at the way the districts are all drawn up," he continues, "the objective is to move all the districts as much as possible to rural areas which as a whole are more conservative. And New Orleans is like the bastion of liberalism as far as the state's concerned, so it would be in the Family Forum's neoconservative best interest to try and dilute the vote here as much as possible."

Morrel says this same agenda also is revealed in a congressional redistricting plan put out by the Family Forum last year. That plan, based on the assumption that Louisiana would be losing a congressional seat due to population declines, divides Orleans Parish into two districts, joining the western half with a north shore district and tying New Orleans East to a vast district that runs through the river parishes, covering much of the present day 3rd Congressional District.

"What it comes down to," Morrel says, "is this is a purely political move by the Family Forum. The Family Forum is a super right wing conservative group, and if you look at what they do with African-American [state Senate] districts in Orleans Parish and what they do with Bill Jefferson/Joseph Cao's congressional seat, their goal is to dilute anyone who has a non-neoconservative agenda. That's their goal."

With the state still living in the shadow of Katrina, Mills says he expects this to be a hot-button issue.

"I think that it's certainly understandable that this is a sensitive subject matter," he says, "and we've been cautioned about weighing in on this, and would not have, had Sen. Guillory not asked us to consider working on this together. Having said that, I believe this is a historic once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consider where a plan of demographic equity could bring about an equitable representation throughout the state of all of our families and all of Louisiana. And New Orleans has enjoyed, in our opinion, a disproportionate share of that power in the past. We don't think that the population in New Orleans warrants maintaining as many majority black districts in New Orleans proper and that other regions of the state certainly should enjoy their opportunity to experience what New Orleans has for these many years."

Guillory adds, "I'm not emotional about this. This is not an emotional issue. This is a statistical issue. It has nothing to do with disasters and tragedies and all of that stuff; it simply has to do with the numbers of people who have shifted from the New Orleans area into southwest Louisiana."

The numbers themselves are also a bone of contention. Morrel argues that the Guillory-LFFA plan ignores New Orleans' upward trend in population over the past few years, a trend he expects to continue with the 2010 census. The city of New Orleans has met with some success in challenging the Census Bureau to increase its population estimates for Orleans Parish over the past few years. The 2010 census, which will be a full count, won't be subject to as much guesswork (2009 census numbers are expected to come out in July). By most estimates, Orleans Parish, which had a pre-Katrina population of 485,000, will be counted with around 350,000 people in the 2010 census. (The Guillory-LFFA plan is based on a New Orleans population of 330,000.)

Both Guillory and Mills have been making the rounds with their redistricting proposal, meeting with legislators to get feedback. "Some of it was very critical," admits Mills, "and some of that critical comment caused us to move and rearrange our concepts and assumptions in each of those particular districts. So, we thought it was constructive, and we think that's got to continue if you're going to develop a plan that's going to work for the entire state." Guillory and LFFA have also publicly released their plan for review and say they hope to foster more open dialogue about redistricting decisions.

Guillory says he first approached the Family Forum about the issue last year after being impressed with the work they had done on a congressional redistricting proposal. "If you check my [voting] record I've not been a 100 percenter with the family Forum," Guillory says, referring to the legislative score cards the Family Forum puts out on each legislator. "But they had the experience and the assets, and in this situation we agreed on the basic principles, the basic principles of redistribution of power commensurate with redistribution of population."

According to Morrel, there's a reason no other senators are standing up in support of the redistricting plan.

"One should always be wary of phantom support," he says. "They've been shopping this plan around for almost five or six months. The fact that they couldn't get one other elected official to come out and say, I'm in favor of this,' that should tell you that it's smoke and mirrors. The only person that's out there pushing this is Elbert, and he's been on board since it started."