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The South's growing pains.

For Barney Schoby, a 14-year veteran of the Mississippi House of Representatives, the 80-mile drive from his Natchez home to the state Capitol one bright spring morning was more than worthwhile. After several hours of wrangling with fellow House Management Committee members, he walked away with a commitment to hire five black staffers for administrative slots.

"I guess the outside world might look at something like this and say |What's the big deal? So you get jobs for five black people?'" Schoby later reflected. "But to me, every victory, no matter how small, is important. It's all part of a great battle that we can never stop waging."

And indeed, Schoby, who is also chairman of the 22-member black caucus, did score a triumph. With the five new hirees, blacks now make up almost one third of the House's administrative staff, up from just over 25 percent earlier this year. "It's another sign that things are changing," Schoby continued, "that progress, however slow, is being made."

Across the South today, Schoby's experience is being replicated--progress and change have become bywords. Not only are there more minorities and women than ever before serving in state legislatures and working as part of their support staffs, but Republicans have made dramatic inroads in the once solidly Democratic South. They make up 27 percent of the overall total compared to less than 10 percent two decades ago. Blacks account for 14 percent of the southern legislative membership, and women are up to 12 percent.

"Southern state legislatures, as a whole, are vastly changed institutions from just a decade ago," says Abraham Holtzman, professor of political science at North Carolina State University and director of the internship program for the General Assembly. "There is probably no region of the country that has undergone such a dramatic transformation in its legislative bodies. And, for the most part, almost all of the changes have been for the better."

Scholars and southern state legislators say the two biggest changes have come in the areas of professionalism and diversity--and that both were long overdue.

"When I first got here in 1964, not only was there no support staff, but we didn't even have our own offices," says Hunter B. Andrews, majority leader of Virginia's General Assembly. "Our of offices were the desks we had on the floor of the Senate ... You got to know your colleagues real well because you did almost all of your work in the chamber. But there is no way that you could handle the kind of workload we handle today without a full support staff and computers."

Southern legislatures--particularly Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia--are becoming more professional.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the change is the growth of support staffing. Between 1979 and 1988 full-time staffs increased by more than a third. Similarly, the average increase in expenditures for all southern states between 1972 and 1990 was just over 126 percent. In just one state, Florida, this year's budget for the House will top $43 million while the Senate's budget is $28 million--more than twice that of 20 years ago.

Such staff functions as bill drafting, research services and fiscal analysis, combined with the creation of nonpartisan research offices for a variety of legislative committees, have helped to increase the effectiveness of southern state legislatures and to change the image of the southern lawmaker as a sort of hapless hayseed.

"They're a more dedicated and serious bunch today," said John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Review and the author of two books about Louisiana's legendary governor Edwin Edwards. "The legislatures are generally less wicked places to be these days. Everyone dresses better; they don't all smoke big cigars anymore; and they're more independent than they used to be. The degree of professionalism has definitely improved."

Perhaps the most noticeable change in the southern state legislatures of the 1990s is the steady but slow increase in the number of women and minority members--black legislators have seen their numbers jump from less than 50 in 1971 to 247 this year. Women's membership has gone from 174 to 210 in the past two years alone.

"We are much more inclusive bodies today, and more accepting of every citizen," said John Miller, a 35-year-veteran of the Arkansas House. "It's helped us see problems from a wider variety of views, which is very good too. When I first got elected, this was a kind of closed system, but now we are much more open, more in tune with who the public really is."

Diana E. Bajoie, who first entered the Louisiana Legislature in 1976 as a representative before winning election to the Senate in 1991, said being black and a woman has proved to be a hidden strength. .

"I think a lot of conservative white male legislators, who may not agree with anything I stand for, will still make sure not to exclude me for fear that it might get back to the black and women voters in their home districts, most of whom, together, form a majority," she said.

As a coalition, women and minority members are also proving to be a potent force. This year, for example, women, black and Hispanic members of the Florida House rallied around a bill sponsored by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz requiring that state boards reflect the Sunshine State's demographics of 12 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and 50 percent female. Although opponents virulently attacked the measure--Representative Jeff Stabins called it "political correctness gone amok"--it easily passed 74-38.

"That was an incredibly progressive and controversial measure that would never have seen the light of day in a southern legislature 20 years ago, and wouldn't have done much better 10 years ago," said one Florida House assistant. "It not only shows how things have changed, but what exactly those changes mean."

Undoubtedly, the biggest reason for the jump in black legislative membership in the South has been reapportionment. Election districts throughout the region have been redrawn under order of the U.S. Justice Department. Many have gone from multi-member districts to single-member districts, giving blacks and other minorities a better shot in areas where minority residents make up more than 50 percent of the voters. Since 1989, in fact, the number of black legislators in the Old Confederacy has increased by almost 45 percent. The biggest increases were in six states: Black membership grew from six to 13 in Arkansas, 12 to 19 in Florida, 32 to 49 in Georgia, 19 to 32 in Louisiana, 20 to 42 in Mississippi and 16 to 25 in North Carolina.

Some of the districts designed to elect minority representatives and drawn to comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act may be in jeopardy as a result of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision on North Carolina's congressional district 12 (Shaw vs. Reno). The Court, in a 5-4 ruling, once again struggled with the issue of race and how states can remedy political inequality. The Court ruled that states can not draw "bizarre" districts for the sole purpose of favoring one race over another. The Court did not specify what it meant by bizarre. Under the new ruling, many of the southern districts that elected minority members are now subject to legal challenge.

Southern leaders acknowledge that reapportionment has come with a price: a gradual erosion of biracial coalitions. "It's unfortunate, but in some ways we're seeing a resegregation of minority members," says Virginia's Andrews. "If the white members come only from predominantly white districts and black members from black districts, they tend to work only for what their constituents want. Before, they were working for black and white constituents together. There was a better mix."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the North Carolina case that political districts based on race "bear an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid." O'Connor said that in districts drawn to benefit one racial group "elected officials are more likely to believe their primary obligation is to represent only the members of that group." And according to O'Connor, "This is altogether athithetical to our system of representative democracy."

Holtzman of North Carolina State University agrees: "It fragments the legislators. They don't have a common constituency anymore."

With the demise of that common constituency, race and racial issues have oftentimes been divisive rather than unifying factors in the southern legislatures.

In the Louisiana House between 1989 and 1991, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke introduced a series of racially oriented measures--such as a repeal of affirmative action programs, the elimination of minority set-aside programs and the raising of penalties on drug offenders who live in public housing projects--in a move to give his own political agenda more publicity. But Duke's measures also created anger and enmity in the House, and, for a time, drove a wedge in the historic black-Cajun coalition that first took form two decades ago.

"The agenda of this man [Duke] is to divide people in this body and divide the people of this state along racial lines," said Representative Melvin "Kip" Holden, who reflected the exasperation in the Legislature caused by Duke's

proposals when he complained: "We're dealing with this man and with legislation that is racially divisive. That's all we're dealing with."

Racial divisions also have haunted the Georgia legislature. Earlier this year disputes between black and white members of the General Assembly became so intense that House Majority Leader Larry Walker publicly called for a truce, arguing that racial tensions were threatening to "see this state tom apart."

"Just pick an issue before this year's General Assembly, and there's probably an undercurrent of racial tension. It's been that way since the birth of the civil rights movement, but both black and white lawmakers agree it's gotten worse this year," noted one reporter for the Atlanta Constitution.

"It's something that really never disappears," says Mississippi's Schoby. "You may be thinking that black and white legislators are getting along, but then all of a sudden something comes up with racial overtones and we're at each other all over again. It's always there, and it hurts the sort of coalition-building you'd like to see."

If such tensions seem to be a throwback to a more traditional time, then the advent of a vibrant two-party system in every state south of the Mason-Dixon line seems to be a harbinger of the region's future. When V.O. Key Jr. published his landmark work Southern Politics in 1949, few could deny the simple truth of his words when he wrote:A single party, as the saying goes, dominates the South..." That party, of course, was the Democratic party.

Forty years later, Dewey Grantham's words were equally irrefutable when he wrote in Life and Death of the Solid South (1988) that "no aspect of the transformation of southern politics since World War II is more remarkable than the development of interparty competition."

Although significant parts of the Solid South began to break away as early as 1952 when Virginia, Florida and Texas voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower for president, it wasn't until the early 1980s that Republicans saw significant victories in races for governor, the U.S. Senate and state legislatures.

In 1960, Republicans held less than 10 percent of the region's seats. Even after two landslide Republican presidential victories by Ronald Reagan in the South in 1980 and 1984--in which the GOP won 23 out of 24 state contests--the Republican membership in southern state legislatures was still less than 25 percent. Today, after the 1992 elections boosted their numbers to 43 percent of the seats in the Florida and Virginia legislatures and 40 percent in Texas and South Carolina, there are 509 Republicans in the southern state legislatures.

Even as George Bush was losing Arkansas and Georgia in last year's presidential election, Republicans picked up two and 21 seats respectively in those states while adding to their numbers in Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Across the South, the Republicans seem to be reproducing at a pace more alarming to some than the Third World birthrate. In just the past decade, Republicans have won an additional 17 seats in Virginia's General Assembly, 29 seats in North Carolina's House and Senate, and 29 seats in the Texas Legislature.

Today, the party holds almost 30 percent of all the seats in the region. Republicans have become major bloc-vote forces in most southern legislatures.

"That several states may very soon have either a House or a Senate controlled by the Republicans seems inevitable," says Mississippi Senator Dick Hall, who is also the president of the Mississippi Republican Elected Officials Association. "It is all part of an evolution, and we are right now it the point where we have enough numbers to be recognized as a growing threat, but not enough to flex any real muscle."

Because Republicans are only now reaching political adolescence in the South, they are still not powerful enough to form caucuses or impose strict party loyalty.

"In fact, in my state anyway, it's been the Democrats who've formed a caucus. We thought about it and then decided against it, all it would do is alienate our Democratic counterparts, and, to be honest, we need them right now if we expect to get any important committee assignments or any legislation passed," Hall says. "I think most Republicans in the southern legislatures right now are just sort of doing their work individually rather than working as an organized party. But as their numbers grow, it will surely change."

In Texas, Republicans have become so numerous, particularly after reapportionment gave them 13 members in the Senate in last year's elections, that Democrats in both houses no longer pretend they don't exist.

"They have enough votes right now to block any legislation they want to in the Texas Senate," says Janice May, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. "So they really do most of their work by stopping Democratic legislation they may not like. They can force change, and they do it by demanding changes in the language of some bills or by outright defeating other bills."

May adds, however, that the GOP's blocking actions are probably of a transitory nature. She thinks that within the decade the Republicans may have enough numbers to win either or both houses of the Legislature in the Lone Star State, despite a recent court-ordered redesign of its apportionment plan that pre-empts the one used in the 1992 elections.

"The new plan is thought to be somewhat more fair to the Democrats, while the 1991 plan was very favorable to the Republicans," says May. "Yet, there can be no doubt about it, most of the recent trends seem to favor the Republicans. They are winning more and more local elections, and Texas has become much more conservative in recent years than has the nation."

Nowhere has the impact of the Republican incursion been as swift as in Florida. Its GOP House membership increased from 36 in 1982 to 49 last year while the Senate--overwhelmingly Democratic in 1982 by a 32 to 8 margin--split down the middle with 20 seats each for Democrats and Republicans.

The split posed one immediate problem for Florida legislators: Who's in charge here? And the answer, according to Joe Brown, secretary of the Florida Senate, was nobody.

"I ended up sitting in as president of the Senate until both sides could come together," said Brown, "and it wasn't a bad job."

Brown had to warm the Senate president's chair for nearly a month while the Democrats and Republicans argued first over who their respective leaders would be, and then over which leader from which party would serve.

In an historic pact, deadlocked Democrats and Republicans finally agreed to split the president's term in two with Republican Senator Ander Crenshaw serving as president the first year and Democrat Pat Thomas the second. Both men promised cooperation and each will retain the right during their terms to name all committee chairmen, refer all bills to committees and decide which bills will come to the floor.

Brown acknowledged that, viewed in a larger context, the Florida power-sharing is ultimately a Republican victory. "They have substantial numbers to work with now, numbers they weren't even close to having a couple of years ago," he said. "They've definitely been on the move."

Although Republican prospects in Florida were enhanced in the 1992 elections by reapportionment and the retirement of a large number of Democratic incumbents, long-term prospects for the party are strong. GOP voter registration has been on a steady increase while the Democrats' has declined. The party even managed to pick up its additional seats in the Florida Legislature as Bush's Florida vote total dropped by nearly half a million from his 1988 showing.

The same dynamics hold true for Texas. There were gains for the GOP in the Legislature at the same time Bush was narrowly carrying the state with a total that was off by more than 576,000 votes from the 1988 election.

"I think that perhaps the most significant difference in the South today is the vitality of the Republican party on the state level," says Jim Williams, executive director of the Alabama Public Affairs Research Council. "We've seen Republicans win here in recent years in districts they haven't carried since Reconstruction."

Party-switching has also been a great source of strength to the Republicans in the South, according to Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. "Not only is there not a great deal of philosophical difference between many southern Democrats and Republicans, but some legislators have found it wise to be Republican. They usually run unopposed in their own primaries, unlike the Democrats who tend to be much more competitive."

Bullock says that party-switching, which overwhelmingly runs in the direction of Democrat to Republican although there have been isolated cases of a reverse flow, also appears to be tied in with the fortunes of the national Republican party. "When Reagan first came in, there was a spate of party-switching. Then around 1989 or so, we saw some more. Now it has levelled off some. I think in many states where there is no party organization within the legislature, party-switching is less important. The conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans tend to vote a lot alike."

Rural constituencies in the South, though, still appear to be the last bastion of Democratic strength in the region. They used to vote Democratic in the rural areas straight down the ticket, more so ever than in the cities or suburbs," says Bullock. "But now we're at last seeing changes in that. First they started to vote Republican at the presidential level, then for governors and senators, and now it is finally on a district by district, local basis. That has to be very good news for the Republicans."

But as the Republicans continue their long march toward the statehouses, they may wonder, once confronted with the daunting fiscal dilemmas of southern states in the 1990s, why they bothered to get there in the first place.

After years of booming economies, most states in the South are. seeing red--and it's making for some hard decisions.

Earlier this year Texas' budget shortfall was more than $7 billion. In Louisiana, the deficit is at an historic high of nearly $620 million. And in Mississippi, the budget has become so thin that the Legislative Black Caucus put forth its own state budget proposal in hopes of both steering scarce state money in a certain direction while also highlighting its own legislative priorities. Black caucus members wanted more money for education, social services and AIDS treatment programs, among other things, even though their budget was ultimately ignored by conservative Republican Governor Kirk Fordice and most white lawmakers.

Lawmakers in Mississippi have also agreed to add to bills coming out of the appropriations committee an attachment explaining where extra money will come from if a particular appropriation goes beyond the fiscal year's budget.

"We've just been way out of control when it comes to our expenditures, and this is a way of trying to have some accounting," said Representative Billy McCoy, a prime proponent of the idea. "We're finally beginning to learn that there are limitations to what we can spend. We should've done this years ago."

Headaches from budget constraints are also felt in a lack of support staff, said Jeff Woodard, a top assistant to Alabama's speaker. "No one in the Legislature will deny that we need more research and support staff. But they're afraid to hire anyone new because the public doesn't look too kindly on adding to the state's payrolls, especially with the budget being in such a mess."

"No doubt about it," says Holtzman of North Carolina State University, "the budgetary decisions for most southern legislatures are getting harder and harder to make simply because there is less and less money. It's probably going to end up being one of the greatest challenges of the decade for them."

For Louisiana's Bajoie, the new challenge has already arrived. "When I first came to Baton Rouge, my biggest challenge was learning my way around and getting the other legislators to accept me. Now my biggest challenge is to get bills passed, serve my constituents and keep an office going when there's no money left. It kind of makes me think that those old challenges, compared to what we're facing today, weren't so challenging after all."
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Title Annotation:racial issues and minorities in South
Author:Boulard, Garry
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Words:3581
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