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Rep. Alexander resignation lifts Democrats’ House chances

12th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The announcement that North Louisiana Congressman Rodney Alexander would not seek re-election, citing the partisan gridlock of Washington as his motive, may be good news for the slim Democratic chances to reclaim the House—if not in 2014, then in 2016.

That is, if a white Democrat really has a chance at all in the future politics of rural Louisiana. Certainly, he or she will not in the October 19th special election, thanks to the low turnout that will result from Alexander’s decision on Wednesday to resign prior to Jan. 2015 in order to become Bobby Jindal State Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Special elections tend to benefit Republicans, no doubt at least an element in Governor’s decision to appoint Alexander mid-term.

Come 2016, however, the district’s demographics, matched with Presidential-level turnout may disproportionately benefit a Democratic Congressional candidate. Alexander’s District 5 seat is 33 percent African-American, the highest percentage of Black voters in any GOP-held U.S. House district in the nation. The racial mix allows Democrats to be contenders in North Louisiana — an unusual swing seat in the otherwise rural-RedState Bible Belt.

Their major liability, of course, would be the Louisiana electorate’s general unwillingness to ever defeat a Congressional incumbent once elected. And, the fact that as a Democrat, Alexander only won in 2002 by a thousand votes, though his victory was billed as a symbol of the Democratic restoration in the South. Then in 2004, he changed parties during the three days of qualifying for the election, first registering as a Donkey on the first day, August 4, and then re-registering as an Elephant just 30 minutes before qualifying closed on August 6.

To Democrats he was a traitor. To Republicans, Alexander represented the latest example of white Conservative Democrats jumping to the GOP—and harkened to the massive party switchers that would give the Republicans a majority in the Louisiana Legislature just a few years later. (The fact that the GOP House leadership rewarded him for his switch with a seat on the Appropriations Committee went unmentioned.)

Then, upon his retire on August 5, Alexander ranted to the Monroe News Star, “Rather than producing tangible solution, to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill. Unfor­tu­nately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon. I have decided not to seek reelection, so that another may put forth ideas on how to break through the gridlock and bring about positive change for our country.”

Regardless of the decade that it took the Congressman to come to the stunning conclusion that politics is involved in politics, and regardless of which party will inherit his district thanks to this Cartesian revelation, the fact remains that Alexander’s decision to opt out of Congress now – rather than prior to 2012 – may prove a disservice to the African-American voters who live and along the “Black Belt” that runs up the Mississippi River—and to the predominantly White voters who inhabit coastal Louisiana from Plaquemines to Cameron Parishes.

Voices called for one or the other to have a congressional district tailor-drawn in the recent redistricting. The politics of incumbency protection, though, paired with the North Louisiana’s desire to maintain two congressional seats even when the dwindling population north of Alexandria no longer supports such representation, killed the chances of either a second Louisiana Black Majority district, or a geographically-focused seat along the coastline, which would have sent a singularly qualified spokesperson to fight the wetlands from floating away.

Put simply, after the 2010 census, the LA legislature had a choice to make. Louisiana stood to lose a Congressional seat post-Katrina, and the district of one sitting U.S. Representative had to go. Ironically, North Louisiana had experienced more aggregate population loss than the Greater New Orleans area, and it made sense to many that the victim should have been either Dr. John Fleming or Rodney Alexander. Merging their seats made the most demographic sense.

Instead, they drew North Louisiana seats that ultimately stretched far south to outskirts of Lafayette and Baton Rouge. It was an act of Gerrymandering of near legendary audacity, but the logic to the legislators was simple. Protect their guy.

The seniority of both men in the U.S. House was cited as a reason to protect their Fleming’s & Alex­ander’s re-elections, yet that hardly stopped the redistricting committee from merging Lafayette Congressman Dr. Charles Bous­tany with the seat held by newly elected fellow Republican Jeff Landry. Boustany had been in the House equally as long.

Since the committees tasked with the redistricting were chaired by North Louisianians, there was little stomach amongst the rank and file to fight their efforts to protect both men, and the influence that having two North Louisiana seats provides on Capitol Hill.

Still, some tried. Rep. Landry called for a redrawn seat to run from Cameron to the outskirts of St. Bernard Parish. The Congress­man reasoned, fishermen and sugarcane farmers across the coastline had more in common with one another than voters in urban Lafayette and New Orleans. Most legislators agreed personally, but instead, they chose to build a district for Steve Scalise that looked like a giant U-Turn, running across the Northshore from Tangipahoa to Slidell, then down through St. Bernard, and running across the coast to encompass Terrebonne Parish. The map specifically split Thibodaux and Houma, in direct opposition to the expressed wishes of EVERY elected official in both parishes.

The district that ultimately re-elected Boustany over Landry was a bit more cohesive in Western Louisiana, but just as illogical. Yet, it paled in comparison to the machinations of the Second District, which was drawn like a giant snake from the Orleans’ Ninth Ward through Central City, jumping the river at Algiers, and then running up the West Bank 70 miles to downtown Baton Rouge. In some areas, it ventured little more than a mile from the Mississippi River, in a vain attempt to pack as many African-American voters in one seat as possible.

The Black Caucus argued that a better design would draw two African American-majority seats, each with fewer overall minority voters, but still majority Black. One would encompass all of Orleans Parish, white precincts in all, along with the entire Jefferson West Bank, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines. Scalise would get all of Lafourche Parish to make up the difference, and Boustany’s seat would include the distant Northern suburbs of Lafayette where Fleming’s seat would scheduled to end.

A second Black-majority seat would flow up the Mississippi River, taking in the African-American majority farming towns from White Castle to Ruston, and going across parts of 1-20 to gain the downtown sections of Monroe and Shreveport. Gerrymandered to be sure, but it would be a mainly rural African-American seat, versus the one ultimately won by Cedric Richmond remaining a mostly urban Black seat.

As African Americans constitute a third of the state’s population, two minority-majority seats out of six seemed to make proportional sense. As much sense, at least, as keeping a Congressman along Louisiana’s coast, and building more cohesive metro districts in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans.

Had Alexander suddenly discovered that partisan political gridlock exists in Washington in 2011, rather than in 2013, the Louisiana legislature would have surely opted for one of these other options, though probably the former rather than the latter. Nevertheless, it’s always easier to get rid of an open seat rather than one filled, no matter how powerful the desires of North Louisiana Committee Chairman might be.

But, of course, Alexander did not have a job offer then. He will make $130,000 as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. That’s quite a bit less than the $174,000 he earned as a Congressman, but Alexander will not have to maintain two residences, and few have noticed that the salary will significantly improve his state retirement income, thanks to measurements based upon one’s final salary and the number of years of service. Alexander served in the Louisiana legislature for 15 years.

The special election on October 19, 2013 to fill the remainder of Alexander’s term has already drawn considerable interest. Louisiana State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, told the News Star that he’s “100 percent in the race.”

“It’s a decision I’d already made. I already represent 10 of the 24 parishes in the district, so I’m confident I have a connection with the people in it and with their conservative priorities.”

Alexander’s chief of staff Adam Terry, a Republican and Harrisonburg native, also told the Monroe newspaper that he’s pondering a bid for the Fifth District. “I’ll make a final decision soon, but today I think it’s more appropriate to let people re­flect on Congress­man Alex-ander’s long, effective service for the 5th District,” Terry said. “It’s his day.”

Scuttlebutt has it that Jonathan Johnson, Alexander’s State Director, has also considered throwing his hat into the ring.

On the Democratic side, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo didn’t rule out a run. “In the past, I’ve been asked to consider running for Congress, but I’ve never considered running against Rodney,” Mayo said to the News Star.. “I’m not ruling anything out. You never say never, but at this point, I love the job I have.”

Monroe attorney Charles Kincade, a self-professed liberal, commented, “I am actually considering it. Who better to champion a true liberal agenda?”

State Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, oddly expressed his leanings toward a run by saying, “I’m very interested, but only because the people of Louisiana deserve a strong voice in D.C. who believe in one Louisiana. We can’t afford bipartisanship.”

The best-known potential candidate, State Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, indicated he might give up his budding bid for lieutenant governor to seek the Fifth District seat.

This article originally published in the August 12, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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