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Strange map maneuvers may reveal high-risk gambit

Even with the inevitability that interests aligned with Gov. Bobby Jindal will prevail at some point, publicity about Louisiana remapping of Congressional districts has taken away attention from a more curious dispute within the Legislature about how each chamber’s new districts are to look.

It’s unusual because the norm has been that each chamber takes care of its own lines and then the other defer totally to it, and vice-versa. But last week Republican House Speaker Jim Tucker declared that the Senate version SB 1 could not go through as is given the existence of non-contiguous precincts existing in a Rapides-parish based Senate district (the plan carves up the parish into four of them). Democrat Senate Pres. Joel Chaisson denied this and said Tucker was manufacturing the issue to hold the plan hostage for some unspecified reason. This touched off successive adjournments through the weekend presumably to work out matters.

Clearly, both leaders cannot be correct. I’d like to tell you which is, but with my rock-and-roll lifestyle I don’t have the time to sift through the Rapides precincts for all four and check for contiguity. However, the more interesting question is whether one is wrong and didn’t realize it, and, most interesting of all, whether one is wrong and does know it and is playing politics, and why.

It shouldn’t seem that likely that some unknown error has happened. Especially on the Senate side, it was reviewed for weeks, and Chaisson seemed adamant of its rectitude. The House has had it a much shorter period of time, yet it should not prove difficult to verify contiguity. The only way this scenario could work is if some very basic, obvious mistake occurred among a set of trained operatives, which seems improbable.

Thus, political gamesmanship appears the most reasonable explanation, and thereby we need a study of potential motives for each leader. If so, clearly one plays a risky gambit. Both term-limited, one would have to back down and in doing so admit staff error, which strains credulity and electability going forward, because neither ever would admit openly to gamesmanship. And it’s key that Tucker launched the tiff, for, in Chaisson’s defense, where would it get Chaisson to submit a plan he knows would be rejected at the federal level (required for review under the Voting Rights Act)? Why pursue doggedly a course that would produce maximal political embarrassment in the future?

Scuttlebutt around the Capitol ascribed a number of motives for Tucker under this scenario, which he denied at least one, his eyeing of a seat of the Public Service Commission. Most relevant to the content of the actual dispute is Tucker may wish for a favorable Senate seat in which to run not provided for in the current version. That would place his residence in District 7, largely unchanged from current lines, with a black population of around 57 percent.

Yet to put him in a favorable district not only would require some substantial redrawing, but in the most obvious scenario would give him a difficult opponent. As currently drawn, to the northeast is the reconstituted District 3, with similar demographics as 7. To the southwest lies District 8, where the numbers are about reversed producing a 57 percent white and 32 percent black composition. They aren’t great number but one he could win – except its occupant is Republican state Sen. John Alario who has represented portions of that district for going on 40 years, remains quite popular there, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Admittedly, all of 3, 7, and 8 are drawn in contortions deliberately to create two majority-minority districts and presumably the same could be accomplished, and actually may look better, if a majority-majority district could be drawn fairly contiguously around Tucker’s precinct and no other incumbent’s. But there’s no way the Senate would ace out two of its own and it still might produce ripple effects on surrounding districts to displease other incumbents planning to run (including Chaisson’s, which he tries to preserve as a district competitive for Democrats). So it seems like a longshot even if this is the goal of Tucker in holding things up. Only if he’s very patient – meaning waiting on Alario’s retirement that could be in as many as 8 years – would moving his precinct into 8 improve his chances. But, if willing to wait, why not just move into the district in the future? And why risk years out of office eroding you base if you stay put?

Today’s dealings might bring resolution and clarity to all of this, but it does represent one of the most intriguing and murky incidents of a session not lacking with drama to date.

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