Louisiana Redistricting: Awards Edition

The decennial redistricting session is finished, although there’s no guarantee Louisiana’s lawmakers won’t need a do-over, or two, or three, or more, somewhere down the line. While waiting for them to finish, I reflected on the many times I’d done this before.

Near the end of every Louisiana legislative session, there are hours of downtime for the majority of members. That’s when those favored few not relegated to the ranks of “hurry up and wait” disappear from view, purportedly engaged in the business of finding compromise that will allow both chambers to finally agree on exactly the same details and wording of bills that have been generally agreed upon previously. Those kinds of political negotiations and deals have now been immortalized in a song from Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.

Sung by the actor playing Aaron Burr, it goes like this:

“No one really knows how the game is played,
The art of the trade, how the sausage gets made.
We just assume that it happens,
But no one else is in the room where it happens.

No one else was in the room where it happened,
The room where it happened,
The room where it happened.
No one else was in the room where it happened,
The room where it happened.
The room where it happened.

No one really knows how the parties get to “Yes,”
The pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess.
We just assume that it happens,
But no else is in the room where it happens.”

As we have seen through the past two+ years, since compromise is no longer a welcome concept within Louisiana’s legislature, none of us need to be “in the room where it happens,” because it doesn’t really happen at all.

However, that particular song from Hamilton, coupled with the session’s (mostly) concurrent timing with the Winter Olympics, got me thinking this sad excuse for fair and democratic reapportionment actually deserves some awards.

These are not the Tonys. Instead…

First up, we have the Totally Off-Key Award. It goes to both House and Senate, based on the following:

State senators filed 23 bills in total: 17 were authored Democrats, including 14 by African-Americans. The other six bills were authored by Republicans. Only five bills made it out of the Senate and Governmental Affairs committee. Two of those were by the Senate President, two by the committee chairperson, and the last by a member of that committee. All those authors are white. All are Republicans.

House members filed 24 bills: 17 by Black Democrats, seven by white Republicans. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced seven of those bills, with four in total making it through a House vote and advancing to, and through, the Senate. The three bills that languished all involved redistricting the state Supreme Court. One, by a white Republican (more on that later) got a semi-hearing on the House floor, before being forcibly tabled. The other two Supreme Court district mapping bills, both drafted by a now retired former state district court judge who just happens to be Black and a Democrat, weren’t given the courtesy of a committee hearing and vote until the final few days of the session. Then the bills just hung out on the House calendar – without being called – until sine die ended it all.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Sen. Cleo Fields. Screen shot by Sue Lincoln

The Bayou Brief would next like to acknowledge the Best Performance Justifying Non-Performance., which goes to Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee chairperson Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell).

On February 4, she cast the deciding votes to defer congressional district mapping bills authored by Black Democrats – bills that would have added a second majority-minority district, as the Census indicated was appropriate – saying, “It’s not just about maps and numbers. It’s about people.”

She then went on to present her congressional redistricting bill, SB 5, which was the one ultimately passed by the entire legislature, and which basically keeps the status quo: five white majority Republican districts, and one (Black, Democratic) majority-minority district. Here’s her justification:

“I believe that SB 5, as we have drawn it, does comply with the Voting Rights Act… It provides a majority-minority district, Congressional District 2, in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas, that has consistently provided minority voters in that district the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

In addition, I do not believe, and there is too much uncertainty to convince us otherwise, that a second majority-minority district can be drawn in Louisiana, that is sufficiently compact and would perform as a minority district without greatly diminishing the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice that is currently afforded the voters in Congressional District 2. By taking voters out of a district that is 56% Black today, and creating two under-performing districts, as proposed in several other bills, we would jeopardize the current majority-minority district. And this legislature would be remiss in our obligations to comply with the Voting Rights Act.”

Our Tone Deaf Award for Biting the Hand that Feeds You goes to Rep. C. Travis Johnson (D-Vidalia). On Thursday, February 10, he voted for Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s House redistricting bill, which maintains the status quo of 29 majority-minority districts. In so doing, Johnson, the first vice president of the Louisiana Democratic Party, clashed with his party and fellow members of the Black Caucus.

A closed-door come-to-Jesus-meeting, held on Valentine’s Day, didn’t earn Johnson any candy or flowers. As reported by The Advocate’s Blake Paterson, Johnson was defiant, allegedly telling his colleagues “he wouldn’t tolerate their disrespecting him for his voting record. Johnson then said he could outraise anyone else in the room in campaign cash as a candidate if a second majority-Black congressional district were created.”

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder. Screen shot by Sue Lincoln

Next, we present the Not Too Sharp Award, to House Speaker Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales). Even after presiding over four previous legislative sessions, the auto mechanic and former race car driver still has trouble counting how many laps left to go.

When a member asked what number of votes would be needed to table a bill, the Speaker quickly replied,”It’s 53.”

The House Clerk, off-mic, turned and corrected him.

“Majority present,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Another member asked if the motion to table could be debated.

The Speaker abruptly answered, “It is a non-debatable motion,” then quickly called for the vote to table the bill.

“52 yeas, 43 nays, and the motion fails to pass.,” Schexnayder announced, necessitating another sotto voce correction from the House Clerk. “The motion to table passes. My apologies on that.”

Rep. Barry Ivey. Screen shot by Sue Lincoln

Before we go further with the Tone Deaf Awards, we’d like to truly honor one House member for his courage and determination. Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central) casting off his red cape and called out the bull.

For those of you who missed the action, which took place on the House floor Wednesday, February 16, Rep. Ivey presented his committee-approved bill (HB 22) to realign the electoral districts for Louisiana’s Supreme Court, adding a second majority-minority district. (Census figures showed three were appropriate, rather than just the single one that has been in place for the past 25 years.)

“You may be asking, ‘Why, oh why, Barry, would you bring this?’ I felt that it was necessary to do this. I try to operate out of conviction and principles, despite knowing that this is not that type of body. It’s a whole lot more about self-preservation and about D and R politics than about anything else. And I believe that’s what’s kept our state back from doing other things, from working together and actually solving problems that affect the people we serve.

“At the very core of our form of government is representation. And when people are not allowed, by virtue of action or inaction in this body, to be fairly represented, I believe we fail to embrace what our Founding Fathers designed in this form of government,” Ivey said. “Today it might be convenient, when your party’s in power. And we may make excuses of why it’s okay to do it like this: why it’s okay, because we have the upper hand. But the tables can turn.”

That’s when the bull turned on him, as Rep. Mark Wright (R-Covington) rose and made a motion to table the bill.

(Yes, this is when the Speaker earned his award, as a majority – 52 of the member present –voted to kill Ivey’s bill.)

That’s when Ivey, speaking on personal privilege, transformed into a magnificent matador.

“This institution historically loves to put off till tomorrow what we can do today. We play the politics, we play the games…We all say it’s not about race. We’ve grown, we’ve matured, we’ve evolved, right? We’re enlightened. And what to we do? We repeat ourselves, because we don’t learn from history. We prioritize politics and a word that I can’t speak on this microphone. It’s a bunch of B.S.

“It’s okay, though. We’ll just continue to ‘get by’ here in Louisiana, because we’re too stupid to work together. That’s okay, though. Our state is dead last. We’ve had kids from all over the state come and tell us they have no hope. This institution has extinguished the hope of our children. Shame on us…Our children are leaving our state and we’re okay with that, ‘cause we do nothing about that. When groups of people in our state do not vote because they feel that their vote does not count, they’re right. Their vote doesn’t count.

Rep. Barry Ivey. Screen shot by Sue Lincoln.

“And what are we saying? We’re saying we haven’t evolved at all. And that’s okay. We’ll continue to be dead last. We lie to ourselves. We pretend. We play the games that it’s about the people, but it’s not. Look at every bill passed in this last year. What you’ll find is that if it wasn’t backed by deep-pocket special interests, it didn’t have much of a shot. And that’s okay. We’re Louisiana. We’re too busy focusing on the politics. We’re too busy focusing on all the things that don’t matter. And what’s the price that we pay? Our children’s future.

“But we’re content with that. Because it’s about me. It’s about my district. It’s about keeping the status quo that is the most failed status quo in the nation…This is how we do things. We squash debate. We don’t debate issues. We have everything pre-planned, organized. We’ve got the political machines operating full throttle all the time…But how many of us can say we did the best we can?

“I’ve told people this institution is the laziest group of people I’ve ever worked with. Because it’s true. Because we’ve got problems everywhere and we don’t want to solve them. Collectively, we expect that someone else is taking care of that, and so we don’t make any effort. There’s problems everywhere and we just assume that someone else is working on it. And what happens when you try? (raises his hand) Look what happens.

“When I come up here, it ain’t about grandstanding. It ain’t about getting re-elected. It’s not about me. It’s about trying to do the best I can to serve the people of this state – to help create a brighter future, a brighter tomorrow for our kids. That’s it. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

Rep. Ivey earned a full round of applause from the Black caucus for his statement.

And for his courage and determination – even though it was tilting at windmills – the Bayou Brief names Don Quixote de la Ivey – Rep. Barry Ivey – this session’s winner of The Impossible Dream Award.

No titlting Don Quixotes allowed. Photo courtesy MediaCommons.

Not everyone appreciated Ivey’s speech. Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) came up to the lectern right after Ivey finished, earning our last Tone Deaf Award. For this session. We call it the Tap Dance Out of This Award.

Rep. Lance Harris. Screen shot by Sue Lincoln

“Members, I just wanna come up here and say something real quick. You know, Barry started his comments saying, ‘This is the process,’ and it is. I’m not happy with the way my district was redistricted, or a lot of things. But it is the process. And I want to remind Mr. Ivey that when he came up here and threw the whole body under the bus, only 50, you know, 49, you know, 51 people voted to table the bill. That means that half of y’all did not.”

So saith the chairman of the House Education Committee.

“So think about that. It is the process. But I will tell you, this is a lesson we all need to learn about these kinda things when we go to the floor. Life does not give you what you want. It gives you what you deserve.”

Is this really what we deserve?