Local demographer Gregory Rigamer of GCR and Associates predicts New Orleans' population will peak at roughly 350,000 by the time the U.S. Census releases its official count in 2010. That would be about 23 percent fewer people than New Orleans had one month before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The displaced New Orleanians are now spread across the country and even around the world, but no locality has grown as a result of the New Orleans diaspora as has Baton Rouge.
New Orleans hadn't even begun rebuilding two years ago when politicos and pundits started predicting a power shift to the Capital City, located just 80 miles upriver. Since a large majority of evacuees landed in Red Stick " various surveys peg the increase at 100,000, with a present population approaching 325,000 " it was assumed that Baton Rouge would likewise gain more legislative seats via the post-census reapportionment. While such talk may be speculative right now, powerful interests are coalescing in both towns to defend turf and to take advantage of Louisiana's changing political landscape.
What's certain is that New Orleans will show a decrease in population, but there likely will be considerable disagreement as to how big a population hit the city takes post-Katrina. Already Mayor Ray Nagin has established himself as the chief promoter of the notion that people are moving back to New Orleans at a substantially faster pace than is generally acknowledged. Nagin bases his rosy population estimates partly on so-called mailbox and utility counts, which may or may not be used in the coming census. The problem with that methodology is simple: Just because people are receiving mail or using energy doesn't mean they're actually living at a particular address.
Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and political analyst, says New Orleans officials are fighting back aggressively by tracking these unconventional counts. There's also the question of what property owners plan to do in the coming years " whether to stay or sell " as Louisiana continues to endure an out-migration trend that started long before Katrina. 'In any case, the stage is certainly set for New Orleans officials to challenge the census with any reported population significantly lower," Stonecipher says. 'When cities lose population, they kick and scream and holler and challenge. We've seen northern cities like Shreveport do it, and sometimes they're successful."
Baton Rouge, meanwhile, is positioning itself just as aggressively for anticipated gains. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has converted many of its ongoing initiatives into regional movements, and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation is spending as much as $1 million to brand and promote the I-10/I-12 region. A new magazine, bankrolled by The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report's parent company, will seek to do the same. There's a political and economic undercurrent running through all of these moves: a very real competition between New Orleans and Baton Rouge as to which city will be the locus of power in Louisiana for the next century.
From Baton Rouge's perspective, it's all about seizing the moment.
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, a Democrat and the dean of Baton Rouge's legislative delegation, says her city is merely being proactive. She says Baton Rouge's potential growth, which could spur an economic and infrastructure boom, is prompting the region to finally work as a cohesive unit. 'I think that's the goal right now in Baton Rouge," she says. 'We want to build upon the regional model and leverage what we have that way."
It's a sound strategy, and much safer than relying on Baton Rouge proper to carry the load. (The city of Baton Rouge is wholly contained in the larger Parish of East Baton Rouge, but the two have unified government. Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden thus is elected parishwide and holds the titles of mayor and parish president.)
State House of Representatives Clerk Alfred W. 'Butch" Speer, who has arguably been involved with more redistricting plans than most elected legislators, says regionalism will be vital if the Baton Rouge area wants to flex real legislative power. Most of the substantial population spikes in the Baton Rouge area actually occurred in adjoining Ascension and Livingston parishes. Ascension is located just downriver " that is, closer to New Orleans " from East Baton Rouge Parish.
In addition, Northshore parishes like St. Tammany and Tangipahoa have shot up in population post-Katrina. 'There's a lot of speculation around the state right now about who is going to gain, but it's just that: speculation," says Speer. 'We really don't even know if Baton Rouge has grown any. It may only gain a seat or two."
That's roughly the same prediction offered up by state Rep. Michael Jackson, a Baton Rouge Democrat who will begin his final term in the House in 2008. 'It's hard to say, since redistricting is still a good ways down the road," Jackson says. 'But if the numbers hold, I think we could gain one seat in the Senate and maybe one or two in the House."
More important than the size of delegation, Jackson adds, is its influence over the process. Broome has actively campaigned for the Senate pro tem job, the Upper Chamber's No. 2 post, and Jackson could potentially end up leading a key committee in the House. Among Republicans, Rep. Mack A. 'Bodi" White, Jr., of Denham Springs is seen as a top contender for a committee chairmanship, and Rep. Hunter Greene of Baton Rouge may well keep his seat on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is where the redistricting process beings. Greene initially threw his hat in the ring for House speaker, but ultimately deferred to Rep. Jim Tucker of Algiers.
As the Capital City delegation grows, it will feel some of the pains that have long afflicted the New Orleans area " beginning with the difficulty of uniting a diverse group of lawmakers behind a single agenda. The Baton Rouge delegation already has a reputation for acrimonious divides, lone wolves and splintered approaches. By contrast, the delegations from Jefferson and Orleans parishes joined with other hurricane-ravaged delegations in the 2007 session to leverage millions in capital outlay funds and recovery initiatives. All the while, Baton Rouge foundered. Its delegation hasn't officially met in more than a year, and it has lacked a chairperson for even longer.
Meanwhile, the new governor, new House Speaker Jim Tucker and new Senate President Joel Chaisson II all hail from southeast Louisiana " more specifically, the greater New Orleans area. Jindal did grow up in Baton Rouge, but legislatively the power remains anchored in and around the Crescent City. That will factor mightily into committee assignments and reapportionment decisions after 2010.
Whether Baton Rouge gains the kind of momentum its boosters are predicting remains speculative for now. Next summer, Louisiana will receive intermediate population estimates for the period through July 2007. Those figures should offer a glimpse of what's to come population-wise. Until then, it's anybody's guess.
'Things in New Orleans are turning around and people appear to be spending money," says Tucker. 'I don't think we'll be down as far as originally thought, but there's little doubt that New Orleans will be down and Baton Rouge will be up. As far as how that plays out, we'll just have to wait."
You bet, Mister Speaker.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist based in Baton Rouge and a regular contributor to Gambit Weekly. You can reach him through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.