Chain Reaction

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As the annual legislative session opened last Monday (March 29), the House seat representing Louisiana’s most valuable real estate was vacant — and it will remain vacant for at least four more weeks, possibly eight.

House District 93 includes all of the CBD and Warehouse District, most of the French Quarter and Treme, and parts of the Lower Garden District, Central City, Faubourgs Marigny and St. John, and Mid-City.

Put another way, no one in the House currently speaks directly for the Superdome, the Arena, the Aquarium and IMAX Theatre, the Riverfront, the medical districts (including the LSU/VA hospital), the port, the World War II Museum, Harrah’s casino, the downtown hotels, many of the city’s landmark restaurants, Jackson Square, Congo Square and parts of Esplanade Ridge — just to name a few.

How did this happen?

It was a chain reaction. It started in December when then-state Sen. Cheryl Gray Evans resigned to join her husband in Connecticut. On Feb. 6, then-state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, who represented House District 93, won a special election to succeed Gray. House Speaker Jim Tucker called the election to succeed Peterson for May 1, with a runoff (if needed) on May 29.

The annual legislative session that began last Monday must end by June 21, which means the new representative from the city’s economic nerve center could miss nearly 80 percent of this year’s session. At a minimum, the district will be unrepresented for nearly half the session.

That’s just part of the story. The May 1 primary falls on the second weekend of Jazz Fest, and the May 29 runoff falls on Memorial Day weekend. Turnout on both days figures to be very, very low, and that will figure prominently in the race to succeed Peterson.

This past week, six candidates — all Democrats — qualified for the job. They are:

• Former state Rep. Louis Charbonnet III, 71, who served in the House from 1972-1984. Charbonnet was a player in city and state politics before losing his House seat in 1983. He moved to eastern New Orleans and lost several legislative races, then returned to Treme after Katrina. The district skews heavily toward younger voters, but Charbonnet says the district needs experience now.

• Rhodesia Douglas, a business owner and civic activist. I left a message for her at the number posted on the Secretary of State’s web site for candidates, but her campaign did not return my call by press time.

• Carlos Hornbrook, 50, a stockbroker and financial planner who ran unsuccessfully for City Council and the Legislature more than 10 years ago. Hornbrook has been active in area educational and recreational causes. He says the key to improving the district is solving the crime problem in Central City.

• Helena Moreno, 32, former TV news anchor-turned-political consultant. Moreno was John Georges’ press aide in the recent mayoral race but says she supports Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu “wholeheartedly.” She ran for Congress in 2008 but lost the Democratic runoff to Bill Jefferson. She says her experience as an investigative reporter has taught her “to ask the tough questions.”

• James Perry, 34, fair housing activist. Perry finished fifth in the recent mayor’s race but earned the respect of Mayor-elect Landrieu — and a spot as co-chair of the Landrieu Transition Team’s Housing Task Force. He continues to co-chair the task force even after qualifying in this race, which could be a sign that the new mayor favors his candidacy.

• Thomas Robichaux, 41, Orleans School Board member. Robichaux took a leave of absence from the City Attorney’s office to run. He is the first openly gay person to win elective office in Louisiana. “I’m not running on that as my issue, but I’m also not hiding from that,” he says, adding that the current school board has made substantial reform since he took office 15 month ago.

The district has a slight black majority (51.4 percent), but turnout could favor a white candidate, based on historic turnout patterns in “off” elections such as this one. An interesting part of the district’s demographic profile is the relatively large concentration of young voters there. Fifty-two percent of the district’s registered voters are under the age of 45, and of that number almost 33 percent are under the age of 35. That’s significantly higher than the statewide averages and somewhat higher than the rest of New Orleans. There are no known figures for lesbian and gay voter registration, but Robichaux’s candidacy — and the chance to elect the state’s first openly gay state lawmaker — figures to motivate the LGBT community.

With six candidates running (three whites and three blacks), a runoff seems likely — but handicapping this one is virtually impossible because of the expected low turnout. Any two could make the runoff. The winner will have to run again in 18 months — in what is sure to be a reconfigured district as a result of post-Census reapportionment and redistricting.

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