BATON ROUGE, La. - With Gov. John Bel Edwards in the governor's mansion, Democrats in Louisiana will have a seat at the table when lawmakers return to Baton Rouge in February to begin the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state's political maps.
So far, Edwards has been tight-lipped about how he'll wield his power against a Legislature dominated by Republicans. He's repeatedly said he wants to see "fair maps," and on his monthly radio show Wednesday, took that a step further: "I will veto bills that I believe suffer from defects in terms of basic fairness."
Democrats are hoping that when the dust settles, Edwards will demand a congressional map that includes a second district where a majority of voters are Black. But the Deep South's only Democratic governor has hedged on whether that's a deal breaker to earn his signature.
In an interview Thursday, Edwards said it would be both "appropriate" and "ideal" for two of Louisiana's six congressional districts to be majority-minority, given the results of the 2020 census, which showed that about 33% of Louisiana’s population identify as Black.
"But you’ve got to be able to put them in a district with a map that looks somewhat regular, because obviously you have that population scattered throughout (the state)," Edwards said.
The Democratic governor added that a fair map would avoid the practice of "packing and cracking," political jargon for concentrating like-minded constituencies into a small number of districts in order to dilute their voting power. That's the path lawmakers took a decade ago, when they crammed Black voters from Baton Rouge to New Orleans together to create the 2nd Congressional District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-Algiers.
The chair of Louisiana's Legislative Black Caucus, state Rep. Ted James said lawmakers have a "simple obligation to follow the numbers," and with a third of Louisiana's population identifying as Black, the math is straightforward: "One-third of six is two."
James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said it makes no sense to lump the Capitol City in with the Big Easy. "I'm asking that Southern University in Baton Rouge is not in the same district as Southern University in New Orleans," James said during a public meeting Tuesday in front of lawmakers who will lead the effort to draw the new maps.
Melissa Flournoy, a former state lawmaker and head of Louisiana Progress Action, said "fair maps" should prioritize racial proportionality and competitiveness. She said current congressional districts all-but-guarantee Louisiana's delegation will include "five hard core Republicans" and "one African-American congressman, who for all intents and purposes, is expected to represent the voices of African-Americans" across the state.
For Black residents, Carter is the only "congressman that will return the calls," Flournoy charged.
At the redistricting roadshow held Tuesday night, Jacquelyn Germany, a Black Baton Rouge native, told state lawmakers she was "sick and tired of being not fairly represented in Congress." Germany is a resident of the Eden Park neighborhood, a community on the dividing line between the 2nd and 6th Congressional District. That's left her community "overlooked," she said.
Gary Chambers, a Baton Rouge activist who campaigned for the 2nd Congressional District earlier this year, said, "If you live in Baton Rouge and you're Black, you have to negotiate with people who grew up in New Orleans and New Orleans wants this seat."
A coalition of major civil rights organizations, led by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, sent a letter to state lawmakers in October with seven different ideas for how Louisiana could redraw its maps to include a second district where Black people constitute a majority of voters. They targeted the Monroe-based 5th Congressional District, represented by Congresswoman Julia Letlow, R-Start, in their proposals.
"The state has had only four Black Congresspeople since Reconstruction," the letter said. "This is a direct consequence of the configuration of Louisiana's congressional districts: Black voters are packed into District 2, the state's only majority-minority opportunity district, and Black communities are cracked among the state's five majority White districts (Districts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6)."
The majority White congressional districts have never elected a Black candidate. Since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed, Louisiana voters have sent 45 White representatives to Congress.
Louisiana is one of a dozen states in the country where the Legislature and governor are controlled by opposing political parties. That's put even more of a spotlight on Edwards and his veto power.
Earlier this year, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, N.C., asked Edwards to make public what criteria would trigger his veto, but he asked to postpone the discussion until after the regular session.
On Thursday, Edwards again said it was too early for him to think about vetoing maps.
“I don’t often talk about veto threats (when) we haven’t even started the session,” Edwards said. “I’m looking forward to working with the Legislature in an effort to draw fair maps that do represent the state and how it’s currently configured.”
Even if the governor laid out his veto criteria in detail, it's unlikely that will sway how Republican lawmakers draw the maps, Flournoy said. She said the best strategy might be to wait and see what the GOP sends his way, and hope its egregious and self-serving enough to backfire in their faces.
"My sense is that the governor does not want to be directly involved, that this is a Legislative function and he’s going to wait and see what they present to him," she said.