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A River Runs Through It

Politicians and their consultants adjust to Jefferson Parish's shifting political landscape following a surprise decision by the U.S. Department of Justice. An upcoming federal trial focuses on race, they say, but parish politics are really all about the

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Political consultant Greg Buisson sits in a Lakeview coffeeshop, holding his head in his hands. The weight of a stunning decision by the U.S. Department of Justice rests on his shoulders.

On June 19, the Justice Department gave conditional approval to a voter-sanctioned plan to change the make-up of the Jefferson Parish Council from six district members and one chair elected parish-wide (6-1) to five district Council members and two at-large members (5-2). Until that day, Buisson, who is based in Metairie, enjoyed consulting contracts with battle-tested candidates running for five of the seven Council seats in the Oct. 4 primary election under the old 6-1 structure.

Among them: former state Rep. Steve Theriot; Elton Lagasse, former superintendent of Jefferson Parish Public Schools; and former Harahan Mayor "Vinny" Mosca, who as a criminal defense attorney made national news recently with his successful defense of the madam of the notorious Canal Street brothel in New Orleans.

Overnight, however, the Justice Department's approval of the 5-2 redistricting plan collapsed old District 5 into the newly redrawn District 2, scattering Buisson's old campaign plans to the political winds. "I have a contract for Theriot for Council District 2 and Mosca for District 5," he says. "If Mosca decided not to run, I was asked to hold District 5 for Lagasse. But now, I have all three clients running in the same race." He looks at a roster of races on the coffee table and sighs. "I have to go with Theriot because my contract is for District 2," he says.

At least for now. To cloud matters further, a federal judge in New Orleans could toss out the new 5-2 Council scheme later this month, after a trial of a voting rights lawsuit brought against the parish by a group of black Jefferson voters. If rejected, all Council candidates would likely run in districts under the old 6-1 structure. And Buisson would have to review his candidate contracts and rework new political strategies.

Supporters of the 5-2 plan say the proposal will unify the parish, which is divided by the Mississippi River. But spokespersons for the black plaintiffs say 5-2 will not only dilute black voter strength parish-wide, but drain political power from the West Bank by reducing the likelihood of equal representation on the parish Council. The federal trial starts this month. "It's a goal line stand for the West Bank," says Cedric Floyd, the first African-American school board member in Jefferson Parish and a court-certified demographer for the black voters. Qualifying for the fall elections begins Aug. 19. But the political fireworks are well underway.

Last fall, parish voters approved an amendment to their home rule charter, which would change their Council from the 6-1 scheme implemented by federal court order in 1989 to a 5-2 structure. Black voters opposed the 5-2 scheme and sued the parish for failing to get the proposal pre-cleared by the Justice Department before putting the measure on the ballot. The plaintiffs further claim the two at-large seats dilute black voting strength, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protects minority voting influence in electoral districts throughout the South.

Federal Judge Carl Barbier set a July 21 trial date for the lawsuit. Lengthy appeals are expected. Meanwhile, few politicos expected the Justice Department to make a quick decision on the 5-2 redistricting plans submitted by the Council after voters approved the concept. Many of the parish political cognoscenti thought the odds favored a Council campaign under the 6-1 scheme.

Council chair Aaron Broussard, who like the rest of the current parish Council is a named defendant in the suit, expressed relief after the Justice Department's approval of the 5-2 plan. "I always believe that with enough time to prove the merits of the 5-2 that it would be successful in a court of law," Broussard says. "But I am surprised at how quickly the Justice Department has returned its pre-clearance. Based on the amount of information they asked for a month ago, it kind of led you to the conclusion that they were going to be pondering all this statistical data for months to come, which led a lot of us to the conclusion that the Justice Department would not come back with a decision prior to qualifying (Aug. 19-21). Obviously that is not the case.

"What has changed now is that where there was the presumption that we would be qualifying under a 6-1 plan, there is now the presumption we will be qualifying under a 5-2 plan. When you add the ballot box approval (last year) with the caveat of the Justice Department approval, that now becomes the law of the land."

The federal trial is now the last hurdle, he says. And black plaintiffs now face an uphill fight to derail the 5-2.

"Now there is a greater burden of proof on the part of the plaintiffs," Broussard says. "If the Justice Department pre-clears it, typically that means they have found no discrimination inherent in the plan."

But Ron Wilson, the black New Orleans civil rights lawyer who sued the parish on behalf of the black plaintiffs, dismisses Broussard's statements. "He is incorrect," Wilson says. The department clearly states its decision has no bearing on any other legal challenges, Wilson says. Furthermore, the June 19 letter to the parish signed by Joseph D. Rich, chief of the voting rights section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, also reserves the right to re-examine the 5-2 plan in the coming weeks.

Wilson says the suit centers on the dilution of black voter strength, which is covered under a section of the Voting Rights Act that is unaffected by Justice Department's clearance of the parish's 5-2 plan. Specifically, he says, the 5-2 plan creates two at-large Council districts, countering a 1989 ruling by U.S. District Judge Peter Beer. The judge then implemented the 6-1 system, which replaced the previous 4-2-1 Council structure, composed of four district members, a parish-wide official who served as Council chair, and two at-large members -- one for the East Bank and one for the West Bank.

In his 1989 ruling, Judge Beer rejected the old 4-2-1 system saying that one at-large seat was permissible, but three at-large seats "would be essentially (and impermissibly) guaranteed to be 'white seats'" due to the relatively low black voting population, then at 13 percent. (Current Jefferson Parish black voter population is 19.2 percent.)

Beer's ruling also noted the political divisiveness of the river. "In any case, the East-bank/West-bank notion is an anachronism long overdue for dismantling," he wrote, referring to the 4-2-1 Council. "Spawned years ago in Jefferson Parish politics, this divisive and redundant scheme has few, if any, redeeming features. This is a good time to end it once and for all." Beer then proceeded to adopt the parish's compromise plan for the 6-1 Council structure. That was 14 years ago.

Outgoing Parish President Tim Coulon, a defendant in the upcoming trial, says he favors the 5-2 system because it was most like the old 4-2-1 Council. The 4-2-1 was "probably the most representative form of government. And the 5-2 closely resembles that," Coulon says.

Supporters of the 5-2 plan also note that their ranks include outgoing District 3 Councilman Donald Jones, who has represented the parish's only majority-black Council district for the last 12 years. Jones also is a named defendant in the black voters' suit. Critics say the 5-2 plan allows for the five term-limited district Council members to remain by running for two at-large seats; up from one at-large seat under the 6-1 scheme.

Buisson (who, along with his candidates, is white) argues that today the Mississippi River -- not race -- is the great political divide in the majority-white parish that stretches 60 miles from the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. "In a race like this, it's East Bank and West Bank, no question about it," Buisson says.

Floyd, the demographer for the black plaintiffs, agrees. "The river is a bigger factor because it impacts more people than race," says Floyd, who has played a key role in numerous black voting rights cases statewide for the last 20 years. "Under the 5-2, the Council could allow as many as five members to be elected from the East Bank and two from the West Bank."

That would upset the current balance of power on the Council between the two river bank populations. Under 6-1, Floyd says, "the Council is guaranteed to have at least three members from the West Bank because you currently have three Council districts with a lion's share of voters on the West Bank."

The additional elected positions of Council chair and parish president have traditionally alternated between West Bank and East Bank representatives, Floyd says. (For example, currently, Westwego native Coulon is parish president and Broussard of Kenner is Council chair.) "So when it came down to parish government you have always had a four/four balance, including three Council members each representing the East Bank and the West Bank," Floyd says.

Under the 6-1 Council structure, districts 1 (now represented by "Butch" Ward), 2 (by Lloyd Giardina) and 3 (by Donald Jones) are all West Bank-majority districts. "Under the 5-2 plan, you only have two districts that are majority West Bank: that's District 1 and District 3," Floyd says.

District 2, the area now giving Greg Buisson headaches, is one of the districts most dramatically affected by 5-2. Under the old 6-1 scheme, Floyd says, District 2 is 85 percent West Bank voters and 15 percent East Bank voters. "But in the 5-2 scheme, it's about 52 percent East Bank and 48 percent West Bank," Floyd says. "This whole [redistricting battle] really is about an East Bank/West Bank situation."

Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris, whose Council district remains exclusively on the West Bank, says he was dismayed to learn the two at-large seats under the 5-2 plan do not include one seat each for the East Bank and the West Bank. In fact, both at-large seats are elected parish-wide.

"Most of the voters are on the East Bank," Harris says. "That really concerns me because the West Bank represents the growth and the future of Jefferson Parish. I am concerned about the representation." He adds: "We want to be one parish but that river is a lot bigger than just a natural barrier, it's a psychological barrier as well."

And, Buisson says, the issues are "dramatically different." The West Bank is more industrialized; its voting population contains more minorities, Democrats and blue-collar workers. The West Bank has fewer registered voters and less disposable income. It also has different types of crime, more overcrowded schools and more flooding problems than the more affluent and Republican East Bank.

"Development is slower on the West Bank because West Bankers are more comfortable crossing the river to spend money in East Bank retail stores," Buisson says. "East Bankers see the bridges to the West as walls."

"Politics, as in military campaigns, can change at a moment's notice," says Council chair Broussard, a Napoleonic history buff who is running for Council president, a seat not affected by the redistricting. "Certainly, the size and shape and dimension of this battlefield has now been altered."

The four announced candidates who originally set their sights on East Bank-only District 5 are adjusting to their recent move to District 2. The newly redrawn district straddles the river to include Harahan, River Ridge, Westwego, small portions of both Marrero and Avondale, and some of unincorporated Jefferson Parish from the Orleans Parish line to Harahan.

Prior to June 19, Howard Bennett, a Republican civic activist and life-long resident of River Ridge on the East Bank, purchased an expensive mail-out announcing his candidacy for old Council District 5. He now must expand his appeal to reach the minorities and Democrats on the West Bank.

"We're going to have to run in two districts at least for a month," says Bennett campaign manager Karen Boudrie, referring to the upcoming trial.

Lagasse, a Republican and former superintendent of parish public schools (1994-2003), says his campaign is unfazed by the 5-2 redistricting plan. "I really don't have a big problem with it because what it really does is unify the parish," he says. Lagasse served both banks of the river as school superintendent and during four of the 13 years he served as an elected school board member. However, he has never run in Harvey, Westwego and Marrero as he must do under the 5-2 plan. "It doesn't make any difference to me whether it's 5-1 or 6-2," he says.

Vinny Mosca is clearly buoyed by the 5-2 change-over. "It takes the Kenner politics out of my race which I consider a blessing," he says. "It puts me in a district with two municipalities (Harahan and Westwego) and having been mayor of one of them (Harahan), I can identify with the problems of the municipalities. Plus, I am a Democrat and it puts me in a good situation with the West Bank Democrats."

Once considered a "lock" for the District 2 seat under the old 6-1 plan, former Rep. Theriot, a veteran West Bank politico, must now spend more time and money campaigning on the East Bank, which under the 5-2 plan holds a 52-48 percent majority of registered voters. Theriot would re-gain momentum if the 6-1 Council is restored and efforts to get him appointed state legislative auditor continue to fail, political observers say.

Meanwhile, Greg Buisson is adjusting to consulting candidates under the 5-2 redistricting map of the parish's political battlefield. For example, the new district 5, the establishment of which caused him so much grief in District 2, is bounded by the Orleans Parish line, Airline Drive, the lake and Transcontinental Drive. The East Bank district includes the old district of outgoing District 6 Councilman Nick Giambelluca. Buisson has a contract to advise state Rep. Jennifer Sneed, R-Metairie, who announced her candidacy for new District 5 last week. Political observers say Sneed struggled to win her House race in a 14-candidate field in 1999, but now has plenty of money and the support of the parish political establishment.

However, the district is now larger. "Anything could happen," says Buisson. And he should know.

In Jefferson Parish, both the population and the - issues differ on the two sides of the Mississippi - River. Some insiders call the river a psychological - barrier. "East Bankers see the bridges to the West as - walls," says political consultant Greg Buisson. - DAVID RICHMOND
  • David Richmond
  • In Jefferson Parish, both the population and the issues differ on the two sides of the Mississippi River. Some insiders call the river a psychological barrier. "East Bankers see the bridges to the West as walls," says political consultant Greg Buisson.

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