Map vote splits on racial lines - Council members trade barbs

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Friday, July 22, 2011
Author: Michelle Krupa Staff writer

After more than four hours of debate punctuated by charges of political gamesmanship and hypocrisy, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday split along racial lines to adopt new district boundaries that reflect the city's dramatic population losses since Hurricane Katrina. 

After voting on a slew of 11th-hour amendments to dueling proposals, the council approved a map crafted by Councilwomen Susan Guidry, Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer. While it retains the general configuration of the five current districts, the map incorporates significant changes in eastern New Orleans, in Mid-City and along the lakeshore. 

Joining the three authors in supporting the measure were at-large council members Jackie Clarkson and Arnie Fielkow. All five are white. 

Voting in opposition were Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who sponsored a competing plan, and Jon Johnson. Both are African-American. 

In a departure from typical council debates, much of the discussion involved explicitly racial considerations, such as whether the competing plans would unduly favor the interests of black or white residents. 

Under the adopted plan, four districts would have majority African-American populations, ranging from 54 percent in District B to 86 percent in District E. District A would have a two-thirds majority of white residents. 

If blessed by the U.S. Justice Department, the new map would be implemented for the 2014 municipal elections and would remain in place for the next decade. 

The plan would realign the number of residents in each district based on the results of the 2010 census. With the city's overall population falling 29.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, the ideal size of each district has dropped from just shy of 97,000 people in 2000 to 68,766 residents. 

Lengthy and often fiery debate over the final plan centered on a handful of alterations to the current map that supporters cast as key to a guiding principle of the redistricting effort: keeping neighborhoods and communities with similar interests within the same council district. 

Guidry and her co-sponsors cited that axiom to defend their placement of four lakefront neighborhoods -- Lake Terrace, Lake Oaks, Lake Vista and Lakeshore -- in District D, even though areas adjacent to the latter two, including City Park, would remain in District A. 

Guidry, the District A representative, said presidents of the four neighborhood associations had expressed a strong desire to remain in the same district. But Hedge-Morrell, who represents District D and whose proposal would have placed Lakeshore in a different district than the other neighborhoods, accused Guidry of pushing the change for political reasons.

"The whole point of your map is to get the Republicans out of your district so you can make sure you get re-elected," said Hedge-Morrell, who unlike Guidry cannot seek re-election in 2014. Both women are Democrats. 

Earlier, Guidry had accused Hedge-Morrell of demanding that the map be redrawn to shift City Park or the Fair Grounds -- now both in District A -- into District D as a feather in its political cap. Hedge-Morrell denied the allegation. 

Also controversial was the distribution of areas around the Fair Grounds that currently are split between districts A and C. Guidry and her co-sponsors said their proposal respected the wishes of neighborhood leaders in Faubourg St. John, who wanted their neighborhood to remain in District A as well as in the same district as the race course and the bulk of Mid-City. 

Hedge-Morrell's map, by contrast, placed the Fair Grounds in District D, along with some surrounding areas that under the Guidry-Head-Palmer plan would end up in different council districts than the racetrack, over neighbors' objections. 

While Johnson largely steered clear of the Fair Grounds debate, he objected to Guidry's strong support for Faubourg St. John leaders' wishes while, in his view, ignoring the equally strong request of residents in eastern New Orleans that District E, which Johnson represents, include all neighborhoods east of the Industrial Canal. 

Under the Guidry-Head-Palmer proposal, three precincts east of the canal, including one that comprises Lakefront Airport, would remain in District D. 

"I don't understand that mentality and I don't accept it," said Johnson, who can seek re-election in 2014. 

In the end, the Mid-City configuration proffered by Guidry, Head and Palmer won the day, while the council adopted an amendment by Hedge-Morrell that shifted the municipal airport into District E. In explaining her rationale, Hedge-Morrell said she wanted to push back against her colleagues that "were totally ignoring what the East wanted." 

"It's about controlling the little bit that we could control," she said. "When you don't have control, any piece of control is better than no control at all."