La. Remap Waits for Blanco

Posted March 14, 2005 at 6:45pm

A decision about whether to attempt a redraw of Louisiana’s Congressional lines appears to rest on Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), and Democratic strategists are deeply divided about her intentions.

Last week’s decision by the Illinois Congressional delegation not to pursue a new round of redistricting short-circuited what many Democrats saw as their best chance of gaining seats in a mid-decade remap and focused attention and political pressure squarely on Louisiana.

Blanco has so far shown little appetite for taking on the politically divisive issue. But she has been the subject of an intense behind-the-scenes lobbying effort to sway her, the effect of which remains unclear.

Roderick Hawkins, a Blanco spokesman, sounded that sentiment Monday.

“The redistricting issue is not on the governor’s agenda at this time,” he said.

One Louisiana Democratic strategist said that Blanco doesn’t “want to fight that fight. She doesn’t want any part of that business.”

The thinking goes that by wading into a partisan re-redistricting effort, Blanco would face the likelihood of upsetting the fragile coalition that helped elect her in 2003, and jeopardize her 2007 re-election.

Blanco defeated now-Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) 52 percent to 48 percent by cobbling together a coalition of rural whites and urban blacks — both groups that could be offended if Blanco took an active role in redrawing the state’s lines before the next census.

Those who believe that Blanco will ultimately give her blessing to the plan argue that all of the other Democratic power players in the state — including key black leaders — have signed on to the effort, a move that will deliver her enough political cover to bless the effort.

“We are moving in the right direction,” said one senior Democratic Congressional aide interested in seeing the remap move forward, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One thing that both camps do agree on is that without the governor’s blessing no state legislator is likely to put himself or herself out on a political limb to reopen the Congressional map.

“The governor in Louisiana is a pretty powerful position and has a lot of influence on legislation,” said Louisiana Secretary of the Senate Glenn Koepp. “Anything that would have to do with changing any of our legislative or Congressional structure would require the governor’s support.”

The window of time to pass a bill that would remap Louisiana’s Congressional seats is brief, and any such effort would face several institutional hurdles.

A redistricting bill would have to be pre-filed in the state House or Senate at least 10 days before the start of the session, which opens on April 25, said Koepp.

No such bill has yet been introduced in either chamber.

It is the short session of the Legislature’s two-year cycle, lasting just 60 calendar days and 45 legislative days. The Legislature must adjourn by June 23.

It is also a “fiscal session,” meaning that the focus is on budgetary and financial matters. Each legislator, by law, is limited to introducing only five bills not directly related to fiscal matters.

Spokeswomen for the top Democrats in the state House and Senate said they had heard nothing about the potential of a redistricting bill.

“I haven’t heard a word,” said Sheila McCant, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Joe Salter.

That sentiment was echoed by Brenda Hodge, a spokeswoman for state Senate President Donald Hines.

Blanco “hasn’t been around to move that issue at all,” Hodge said.

Blanco spent much of the past week in Cuba on a trade mission, during which time she met with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Though the prospects for a Louisiana map remain unclear, it has not stopped Democratic strategists from developing hypothetical new maps that would benefit the party.

Under one scenario, Republican Reps. Jim McCrery and Rodney Alexander would be thrown into a single northern Louisiana district while a new seat would be constructed that runs from Shreveport to Baton Rouge — lines similar to the old 4th district represented by then-Rep. Cleo Fields (D).

Fields, who is black, won the newly created 4th district, which was more than two-thirds black, in the 1992 election and was re-elected in 1994 even as the outlines of the district were being debated in the courts.

In 1996, the courts redrew the seats and put both Fields and McCrery in a new 5th district. Fields, who had run unsuccessfully for governor in 1995, chose not to run and McCrery moved to the new 4th district.

The 5th was won by John Cooksey (R), who left the House in 2002 to pursue an unsuccessful Senate bid.

Alexander, then a Democrat, came out on top in the open-seat race to replace Cooksey but switched parties in August 2004 — enraging national Democrats who see a re-redistricting as their best chance to deliver a measure of payback.

Democrats would also like to shore up freshman Rep. Charlie Melancon’s (D) southeastern Louisiana district but may not be able to accomplish that goal while at the same time carving a new majority-minority district in the state’s northern and central reaches.