Katrina changes New Orleans' political map

Associated Press State Wire: Louisiana (LA) - Monday, April 25, 2011
Author: KEVIN McGILL - Associated Press
Hurricane Katrina altered New Orleans' political landscape five years ago, but only now is it changing the political map. 

With figures from the 2010 census in hand, the City Council is faced with redrawing the boundary lines for each of its five districts so that each will have roughly the same population. The task renews attention to the changes in New Orleans' politics since the 2005 storm, as well as the city's uneven population recovery. 

Among the questions that will be answered in the coming weeks is whether black voting strength will be significantly affected within individual council districts. Also at issue will be whether historic neighborhoods that have traditionally been part of one district, such as the French Quarter and neighboring Faubourg Marigny and Treme, will be split among new ones. 

Council members who plan to seek re-election and constituents in the recovering city all have a stake in the outcome, said political pollster and consultant Silas Lee. 

''Council members develop relationships with constituents and constituents develop relationships with council members and their respective staffs,'' said Lee. 

''They're going to work very hard to keep their districts as close to the status quo as possible,'' predicted Ed Chervenak, political science professor at the University of New Orleans. ''Because they've established ties with those constituents.'' 

Overall, the city's population is 343,829, down from estimates of about 450,000 just prior to the storm. The black population and majority black districts have been slower to bounce back. 

Blacks now make up only 61 percent of the total population, compared to 68 percent after the 2000 census. Ideally, each district should have 68,765 people. But hard-hit district's D and E, predominantly African-American districts that include the Lower 9th Ward and other neighborhoods hit hard when levees failed, each has well under 60,000. 

The racial changes have already been reflected in elections since the storm. Despite the fact that the city retains a black majority, whites now make up most of the seven-member council two city-wide seats and three of the five district seats. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is the first white candidate to be elected to that post since his father held the job in the 1970s. Political observers note several possible reasons for the changes, including the lack of a unifying African-American figure in local politics, disruptions in political organizations since the storm scattered so many people, and a willingness evidenced by a strong black vote for Landrieu last year to look past racial concerns. 

Federal guidelines on redistricting say new districts generally cannot result in ''retrogression'' of minority voting strength, but also make allowances for population shifts or other factors. 

''Minority voters can't be made worse off than the status quo,'' Chervenak said, but he added, ''After Katrina we're operating under a new demographic order, so retrogression in part of the city may be unavoidable.'' 

Lee downplayed the role race is likely to play in voters' minds as the remap process unfolds. 

''The reality is, black voters have always crossed racial lines. It depends on the election and who the candidate is and who they are running against,'' he said.