A lot of folks in north Louisiana probably thought they weren’t affected that much by Hurricane Katrina — until now. In what may be the last blast of Katrina’s ill winds, state lawmakers are wrestling with the difficult, messy issues of redistricting in a special session that already has exposed a lot of raw nerves.
There are some interesting — and scary — parallels between the chaos that marked the immediate aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and the pitched battles unfolding now in Baton Rouge.
In just the first three days of the session, before the first redistricting plan was voted on, tempers flared. To those who saw years of festering wounds exposed by Katrina, it was a familiar sight. It’s likely to get worse by the time the session ends on April 13.
Just as Katrina pushed some people over the edge, the pressure of drawing new districts for themselves and others in the wake of massive population shifts (most of which were caused or exacerbated by the storm) has triggered an apocalyptic, every-man-for-himself drama in the halls of power. It’s an ugly tale of confusion, fear, anger and opportunism. No one is safe. Familiar protocols no longer function, and old allegiances are crumbling as lawmakers grab hold of anything that looks like self-preservation.
In some ways, it’s a perfect political storm.
Louisiana has seen extremely small growth over the last four decades. Some parishes in north Louisiana have fewer people today than in 1980. More recently, Katrina up-ended the more populous southern parishes. Even more recently, Republicans gained control over both houses of the Legislature, and they are anxious to solidify those gains. At the same time, blacks now comprise almost a third of the state’s residents — and they rightfully want more access to political power here and in Washington.
Now add one more element: term limits. Because of term limits, relatively few lawmakers have been through this process before. That means few of them know what to expect — or even how to act. And when one of the “newbies” winds up chairing one of the committees charged with drawing the new districts, you get a scene like the one that played out last week in the Senate.
Sen. Bob Kostelka, a white Republican from Monroe, arrived in the Senate in 2003. He now chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and has authored a congressional remap plan that (surprise!) protects two north Louisiana GOP incumbents while dividing the more populated parishes of south Louisiana.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a black Democrat from New Orleans who first arrived in the House in 2000, supports a rival plan that creates a single north Louisiana district with a sizeable (42 percent) black minority. When she and state Sen. Lydia Jackson, a black Democrat from Shreveport, tried to get the rival plan heard in Kostelka’s committee, the normally respectful tone of the Senate gave way to open hostility.
At one point, the obviously irritated chairman dismissively asked them, “How many congressmen have you talked to?” and “What about the governor? Have you heard what he said about my plan?” (Jindal, who initially promised to stay out of redistricting fights, now supports Kostelka’s plan.)
Kostelka also snapped at Peterson, addressing her as “little lady” and reminding her that this was not her committee.
Clearly, it was not.
But Kostelka and other Republicans may soon be reminded that this process doesn’t really end on April 13. All Louisiana redistricting plans must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, which is run by Democrats appointed by President Barack Obama.
The ill winds are a long way from over.