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Idea for heavily black district wilts

by Chad Day, Charlie Frago | March 16, 2011 at 5:22 a.m.

— Drawing a heavily black congressional district would backfire for Arkansas’ minority populations if other states’ examples are the guide, redistricting experts and political scientists say.

Black lawmakers appear to agree.

“I’m very, very, very wary of compacting African-Americans into one district. I don’t know if anybody has any ulterior motives for doing so,” said Joyce Elliott, a black Democratic state senator from Little Rock who lost a race for the 2nd Congressional District seat to Tim Griffin in November.

Experts say that lumping a larger portion of the state’s black population into one district would provide for a safe Democratic district but would likely cement the state’s other three districts as Republican strongholds.

It also could open the state to legal challenges if the new lines focused too closely on dividing along racial lines, they say.

The idea for a higher-percentage black district arose after the release last month of2010 Census numbers, which showed that the none of Arkansas’ four congressional districts were more than a quarter black.

Suggestions for the district drew support from black leaders and Republicans. But that support appears to have softened in the weeks since.

The leading redistricting plan being discussed by legislators now appears to be reconfiguring the 4th District to include Fayetteville, essentially scuttling earlier talk about drawing a district with a black population near 40 percent.

The census numbers showed that the most population growth since 2000 occurred in the 3rd District -an increase of almost 150,000 - making it likely that the district will shrink geographically while the state’s 4th District, which lost population, will grow in any redistricting agreement.

According to 2010 Census numbers, the black population of the 4th District now is about 24 percent, while blacks make up slightly more than 2 percent of the 3rd District’s population.

The state’s overall black population accounts for about 15 percent of its 2,915,918 residents.

Each new congressional district ideally would represent about 728,979 people, roughly a fourth of the state’s total.

Under the proposal for a heavily black district, the existing 4th District would expand, with its growth coming from Delta counties along the Mississippi River that now are in the 1st Congressional District. The plan also would require splitting counties for the first time in the state’s history.

The plan is one of several under consideration by state legislators, who are responsible for redrawing the state’s four congressional districts. Both the Arkansas House and Senate must approve district boundaries.

State Sen. Gilbert Baker, vice chairman of a Senate committee taking the lead in redrawing congressional districts, has said a district could be created that is up to 49 percent black. The Conway Republican said black legislators had shown interest in creating such a district.

Elliott said she continues to believe that a heavily-black congressional district “would be a good thing, but not at the expense of diluting African-American influence throughout the state.”

Elliott said “the burden” of electing the state’s first black person to Congress shouldn’t fall on Arkansas’ black voters.

“It’s up to all of us to challenge ourselves. Do we really want to continue this history that we have of being the only state in the Old South that has never elected an African-American to Congress?” she said.

Recently, state Rep. Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock and the black legislative caucus leader, made similar comments to Talk Business.

Baker said he is still open to creating a heavily-black district, but that he hasn’t talked to any members of the black caucus lately.

Democratic leaders appear to prefer having Fayetteville placed into the 4th District, he said.

“Probably, without establishment Democrat support, [a heavily black district] would be difficult to pull off,” Baker said. Baker said he didn’t favor “gerrymandering” the Democratic stronghold of Fayetteville into the district currently held by U.S. Rep. Mike Ross.

Rep. Clark Hall, a Marvell Democrat who is chairman of the House committee in charge of redrawing the districts, said he’s talked to leaders in every county of the state.

“There are 50 maps and 500 different plans out there,” Hall said.

Hall and Baker said the process should pick up speed next week and the opinions of the black caucus will be taken into consideration.

Earlier this month, Ross said a district that is 40 percent black would be unlikely to elect a black person to Congress.

Black representatives were elected in seven of the 10 districts with between 35 percent and 49.9 percent black populations, but all of those are minority-majority districts, or districts where two or more minority groups combine to outnumber whites, according to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.

The remaining three districts - Pennsylvania’s 1st, Georgia’s 12th and Maryland’s 5th - are represented by white Democrats.

The census estimates are the most recent numbers from all of the nation’s 435 congressional districts because not all 2010 Census numbers have been released.

“In the past, Republicans ... really seem to like racial redistricting because generally, not always, the whiter you make a district, the more likely it is to elect a Republican,” said David Lublin, a professor at American University and the author of The Paradox of Representation: Racial Gerrymandering and Minority Interests in Congress.

Katherine Tate, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, agreed, saying most academic research confirms Ross’ point that districts need to be majority black to elect a black representative.

Overall, census estimates show that of the 41 voting representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus, only four were elected in majority white districts. Twenty-four were elected in majority black districts and 13 were elected in minority-majority districts, according to the most recent caucus roll available on its website.

“Research continues to show that [black voters’] interests are best maximized in districts where their group represents a voting majority. If that’s not possible, constructing districts where Democratic candidates have a good shot at winning a congressional election is then second best,” Tate wrote in an e-mail.

The proposed heavily black district in Arkansas would require dividing counties, including nearly halving Pulaski County - splitting off the southeast and largely black population into one district and leaving the largely white north and west parts for another, a scenario experts said may draw legal challenges.

“When you get into trouble is when you actually start going in and cutting up neighborhoods based solely on race,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute.

For instance, “if there was like a county portion that was white and African American and they just went through and just cut out the African-American precincts out of the county to be part of that district, that could start rising to some legal questions,” he said.

Ross, who represents the state’s 4th District, has opposed splitting counties, saying he wants to keep the current 29 that stretch from western Arkansas to the state’s southeastern corner in the 4th District.

Pearl Ford Dowe, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, said Ross, whose district is nearly a quarter black, is an example of a district where the minority population may not be large enough to influence their representatives.

“[In districts] where you would have not necessarily a majority black population but a sizable black population ... what is happening particularly in the South is that those districts are electing conservative white Democrats or Republicans,” she said.

The intent of drawing influence districts is to allow minority populations to elect a candidate of their choice, not specifically one of their race or ethnicity, she said. In Ross’ case, voters are “still electing a conservative Democrat who may not always address the issues of that 25 percent,” she said.

Lublin, the American University professor, said Southern white Democrats, such as Ross, often thrive on biracial coalitions.

“They’re like orchids, they want the soil to be just right,” he said. “They don’t want it to be too black or they’ll lose to a black candidate, and they don’t want to be too white or they’ll lose to a white Republican.”

Front Section, Pages 1 on 03/16/2011

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