Filed Under:  Politics

‘Wants’ and ‘musts’ on collision course in city’s redistricting challenge

23rd May 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

A recent redistricting meeting at First Baptist Church first voiced the rumor that Lakeview and Uptown might no longer be in the same councilmanic seat, and that New Orleans could go from four Black-majority City Council seats to three.

The predominantly Lakeview crowd in attendance at the meeting spoke vehemently and passionately about the former.

After District A Councilman Susan Guidry explained that her seat was proportionately overpopulated — and that the now divided neighborhoods along the Lake and that of the Faubourg St. John wanted to be unified under the same Councilperson—neighborhood activist Anne Kiefer rose to voice the stunning opinion of many in the room.

Why then could not Lakeview, Faubourg St. John, and Mid-City be their own Council District? There were enough people, it seemed. Let Uptown be drawn out of District A.

“It seems like we’re always in opposition with Uptown,” for funding and other priorities, Kiefer explained. “We have more in common with those neighborhoods up the Lake” and just adjacent.

“It makes more sense to go across than to come down,” she concluded. That would mean drawing Uptown out of a seat, which it has dominated for decades — and the funny thing is that, it might happen.

In most decennial redistricting processes, the lines of the New Orleans City Council make minor adjustments to balance roughly even populations.

Hurricane Katrina put an end to any notion of minor changes. There is the desire by the current council to keep neighborhoods unified that are currently divided by Councilmanic lines; and the surprising patterns of reoccupation could mean that council districts will be vastly different than they are presently.

According to the census figures (which virtually every Council­person disputes, but with which each must abide), the City of New Orleans in 2010 had a population of 343,800. That would mean that the ideal population of each Councilmanic district seat would number 68,000.

Had resettlement been uniform, the current redraw of lines would only need to acknowledge the increases in the densely populated, and unflooded, Mississippi River neighborhoods, and the depopulation of those along the Lake and the East. However, nothing was uniform about the return of the Diaspora.

Council District A’s Lakeview and Mid-City neighborhoods took some of the worst flooding (second only to the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East), yet the District ranks second in population in the city six years after the storm, with 77,100 people, or just under 10,000 higher than the ideal.

Some of this can be explained by people moving to higher ground Uptown and Downtown. Like­wise, Districts B & C, neither of which stretch to Lake, saw the lowest population loss. The Algiers dominated District C has 80,300 people, making it the most populated seat, and the one with the least Katrina flooding.

Despite its fight against blight and the urban decay of Central City, District B has 79,900 residents, ranking third.

Districts D & E, dominated by Gentilly and New Orleans East respectively, ranked lowest in population, 58,300 and 56,000.

Yet, it is also true that resettlement patterns are far from even.

The jump in District A’s population mostly has to do with the fact that Lakeview has returned, when other flooded neighborhoods have not.

As such, Kiefer could reasonably make the argument it deserves a Council District for it, Esplanade Ridge, Mid-City and its environs.

Gentilly has not seen quite the same degree of return as Lakeview. And, reportedly the repopulation in New Orleans East (or the Ninth Ward) – except for the Vietnamese community, has not been as vigorous either.

That means major adjustments in the lines.

Fixing the lines for District E is actually quite simple, something acknowledged by its councilman, Jon Johnson. Take the area where District D stretches over the Industrial Canal and give it to District E — which contains most of the East and all of the Ninth Ward.

With the 5 percent deviation that is allowed under state law, in population size, Johnson can have a contiguous district in the East — and perhaps even a bit of Gentilly in “D.”

That’s the key to Kiefer’s point, something echoed in degrees by both former Councilman Scott Shea and Orleans School Board member Brett Bonin at the same redistricting meeting on May 12 at the First Baptist Church.

Homeowners in Lake Oaks, Lake Vista, and Lake Terrace have sent letters to Guidry and the Council asking to be reunified with their neighborhood brethren in Lakeview, all in Council A. Likewise, the area around the Fairgrounds Racetrack, currently in District A, has petitioned to unite with the rest of the Faubourg St. John into a single councilmanic seat. Most of the rest of the Esplanade Ridge is in Council District C.

“We call it the finger,” Guidry explained with a laugh, due to the way Council C juts down from the French Quarter down Esplanade Ave., surrounded by District A to the Northeast and Southwest.

To Orleans School Board member Brent Bonin it is more than a geographical rude gesture. “The finger bisects neighborhoods.” He ex­plained on the Ridge and throughout Mid-City, there was a desire to be a single Council seat, and the commonality with Lakeview was undeniable. (Bonin, however, stopped short of endorsing a defenestration of Uptown.)

Still, if one were to take Esplanade Ridge out of Council C, which is almost 20,000 people over populated, and parts of Mid-City on the borders of District B, and some Lakefront neighborhoods in District D, a Lake-centric seat could be created.

Remains of District D would stretch from the Lake through Central City, probably as far as St. Roch on one end and down OC Haley on the other, constituting an African-American majority seat, like E.

District C must shrink; though, not as far as to constitute just Algiers—as so many West Bankers had longed hoped. Algiers has a population of 55,000 according to the Census. Even with the 5% deviation allowed, it still must encompass parts of the East Bank.

(Some advocates of a singular West Bank seat note exceptions under state law for districts divided by Rivers. But, several court rulings have only upheld the underpopulation model if the Rivers lack bridges or ferries, a problem from which Algiers does not suffer. Regardless, Councilperson Kristen Palmer has spent most of her professional life working in Historic Restoration for the PRC in many of the neighborhoods surrounding the French Quarter. She would not give them up without a fight.)

In theory, District C’s East Bank, could be limited to the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny (or the CBD). Needing, with 5% deviation as few as 64,600 residents, the Vieux Carre’s 5,000 residents, and just a sliver of the Marigny’s, Treme’s, St. Roch’s, or CBD’s homeowners, could make up the remainder.

Under this model, District D would stretch from the River to the Lake, creating a solid African-American majority seat, as would District E, possessed of the entire East, Ninth Ward, and, perhaps, the Industrial Canal side of Gentilly—if needed.

District B would lose most of Central City to “D”, but would gain Uptown almost to the Riverbend. “A” would run from Hollygrove, encompassing most of Mid-City, the Lakefront, and Faubourg St. John.

Currently, Councilperson Susan Guidry has not expressed any support for the idea, and unlike Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge Morrell, the “B” and “D” incumbents, she is not term limited. As such, she has a reason not to sacrifice Uptown, which cast its votes for her over Jay Batt in 2010.

Nevertheless, Guidry, as a Faubourg St. John resident herself, has often noted the stupidity of dividing the neighborhood. She also has made a commitment to reunify the Lake communities that share similar interests.

There are few models where Guidry could retain her home in the F.S.J. as part of “A” embrace the Lake, and keep large portions of Uptown.

The challenge comes from the racial demographics of the remaining Council seats. As of now, the only majority-white seat is District A. If Guidry retains her Mid-City precincts and Hollygrove for diversity and basic political reasons (as a Democrat, she needs Black votes or the seat will go GOP again), then there is a good chance that the newly redrawn District “B” would go from a comfortable African-American majority, to a narrow Caucasian majority. (It would be much like the new Uptown, white Democratic State House seat recently drawn for Rep. Neil Abramson.)

District C, would maintain a narrow African American-majority thanks to Algiers and Tremé, with the remaining seats having Black supermajorities.

The racial breakdown would mirror the current majority-minority demographics of post-Katrina New Orleans, roughly 60-40, three seats to two. However, critics would argue that only seats with supermajorities tend to elect Black representatives consistently. Narrow majorities of African-American voters tend to reap White Democrats.

It is not an idle worry. The current City Council has two Caucasians representing African-American ma­jority seats after all, representing districts that are far more Black than the proposed District C would be.

Still, the designs of Uptown-centric, Lake-centric, and West Bank-River-centric seats would not only reflect the geographic unity of those neighborhoods, but would also meet federal standards for reflecting racial demographics under the Voting Rights Act, 3 to 2.

New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson outlines the difficulties when she declared, “This is a greater redistricting than this city has ever seen.”

“We are concerned with keeping racial balance…and keeping neighborhoods together. One of the most offensive redistricting problems is how a district line goes through Lake Terrace.”

“It’s offensive” and has to change, Clarkson maintained, but the Council has to balance racial concerns as well. “It’s a very important consideration.”

There are no easy answers, but whatever decisions the City Council must make, it must make them fast. The final City Council redistricting proposal will be heard on July 21, in order to be submitted in time for Justice Department review.

This article was originally published in the May 23, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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