The special legislative session to draw new district boundaries for state lawmakers, judges, congressmen and others won't convene until March 20, but the session already is shaping up as a political free-for-all.
Louisiana will receive final precinct-level numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau this week. Those numbers will form the basis for all redistricting efforts — and any challenges to those efforts.
Even before the official numbers arrive, concerns run high among members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
"Our main concern is trying to keep the numbers in the House and Senate that we have now," says state Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans. "It is anticipated that the official numbers will show New Orleans losing substantial numbers of black residents, but statewide, blacks increased from 29 percent of the overall population to about 31 percent."
While such numbers seem encouraging, New Orleans could lose at least three House seats and one or more Senate seats — all in majority-black areas — because of local population decreases after Hurricane Katrina. And since Katrina, several majority-black House districts in New Orleans elected white representatives.
At least two local House members — Reps. Juan LaFonta and Walker Hines — say they won't seek re-election, which means their districts are likely to be chopped up in the redistricting process. Congressman Cedric Richmond's old District 101 seat in eastern New Orleans also could disappear. That district was hit hard by Katrina.
On the Senate side, the most interesting local intrigue will be an attempt by new state Sen. Cynthia Willard-Lewis to draw herself a district that does not include neighboring Sen. J.P. Morrell. Both their districts saw significant population losses after Katrina, and neither is looking forward to facing the other in the fall elections.
Meanwhile, other parts of the state will see increases in legislative strength. A key objective of the Black Caucus will be creating new black-majority districts to offset those lost in New Orleans.
"There may be pockets where we can draw black districts fairly easily, such as in the River Parishes, but there may be others where the districts may not be so easy to draw," says Murray, a 19-year legislative veteran.
In addition to battles over new legislative districts, the special session could see huge fights over new congressional boundaries. Louisiana will lose one seat in Congress, dropping from seven to six.
The only Louisiana congressman who appears safe right now is Richmond. With blacks comprising almost a third of the state's residents, and with federal law requiring U.S. Justice Department "pre-clearance" of new districting plans, Richmond (the only black member of the state's delegation) is assured of a safe district. Elsewhere in Louisiana, however, two white GOP congressmen will wind up in the same district. Which two? Ah, there's the rub.
Add to that an expected push from the Black Caucus to create a second black-majority congressional district and you've got a recipe for war. "We represent a third of the state," says Murray. "We think we should have a third of the congressional districts."
Lawmakers have given themselves three weeks to draw new district lines. Their decisions will have political repercussions for the next decade.
Murray, former state Rep. Peppi Bruneau and state Rep. Jared Brossett of Gentilly will discuss the redistricting process at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 1, at the monthly meeting of the Alliance for Good Government at Loyola Law School, 526 Pine St. During his tenure in the House, Bruneau played a key role in redistricting efforts. Murray and Brossett currently serve on the Senate and House committees that will consider redistricting plans.