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Baton Rouge Council approves status quo redistricting proposal despite minority population growth

BRCityHall1
Phoebe Jones
/
WRKF
City Hall in Downtown Baton Rouge.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council approved a redistricting proposal Wednesday expected to preserve the racial and partisan makeup of the Council despite recent census data showing that changing demographics in the parish warranted a new configuration.

The 12-member Council is comprised of seven majority-white districts that are currently represented by Republicans and five majority-Black districts currently represented by Democrats. The Council voted 7-5 along racial and partisan lines to approve the status quo proposal.

The vote to maintain the status quo is likely to prompt legal action by local civil rights groups, including the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP, who said the new district map needed to increase minority representation to better reflect the community’s diversity.

“In our opinion at the NAACP, under no circumstances should Black people be the majority in this parish but have minority representation,” Eugene Collins, president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge chapter, said. “We’re doing everything that this [Council] has done since the late 50s. I urge you to be different… and if not, I can assure you that this city is looking at litigation.”

The 2020 Census found that 45.2% percent of the parish’s 456,781 citizens identified as Black and 42.9% identified as white only. That split narrows to within one percentage point when limiting the parish population to residents of voting age.

The council’s Democratic minority supported a proposal that would have created one additional majority-Black district and would have likely left the panel evenly balanced with six Democrats and six Republicans.

But after more than two and a half hours of public comment and debate, many speakers voiced their support for the status quo proposal that eventually was approved because the alternative would have split their neighborhoods among several Metro Council districts.

District 11 Council member Laurie Adams, who represented many of the residents who spoke in favor of the status quo proposal, said splitting those neighborhoods would break up communities with common interests and make it more difficult for them to advocate for themselves.

“These are neighborhoods and areas that are deeply committed to having our parish be the strongest that it can be,” Adams said.

But advocates for increased minority representation on the panel said Black residents had been denied the same consideration for generations, and predominantly Black neighborhoods had lost out when the government invested in parts of the city-parish that had a larger white population.

District 6 Council member Cleve Dunn said the underrepresentation of Black voters is the modern manifestation of Jim Crow policies and systemic racism of the past.

“The data is obvious that African Americans have a majority in the parish,” Dunn said. “This is your moment to decide where you stand on equal representation, on equality and on your Christian values... And where you stand today shows where you would have stood on those other issues: racism, slavery and Jim Crow.”

Several Council members asked Mike Hefner, the demographer hired by the city-parish for the redistricting process, if the status quo proposal would run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the dilution of the political power of minority racial groups.

Hefner declined to provide a direct answer, saying there was no direct formula to calculate what amount of minority population growth warranted the creation of a new majority-minority district. But he added that maps that included districts drawn where race was the sole consideration also could lead to legal trouble.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she was disappointed by the vote.

“My vision for Baton Rouge has always been for our city to be a community of peace, prosperity and progress,” Broome said in a statement. “The only way this is achievable is for us to commit ourselves to equity and social justice within our Parish, starting with the most fundamental right of equal representation.”

She said her administration would continue to fight for the rights of East Baton Rouge Parish residents.

Civil rights groups have already challenged congressional, state legislative and parish school board redistricting proposals in court over their failure to increase minority representation. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the lawsuit challenging the congressional district map drawn by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The High Court tied the outcome of that case to their consideration of a similar congressional redistricting case out of Alabama.

Their ruling in the case could dramatically change the role played in the drawing of voting district lines at every level of government.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.