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Term Limits A Major Change Agent 

The new City Council districts adopted last week will have little effect on the citywide elections in February and March, but that doesn't mean we won't see some significant changes on the council.

In past years, redrawing the district lines among the council's five districts caused considerable legal and political in-fighting. Careers were launched, stalled or ended when political subdivisions changed to keep the districts more or less equal in size after each decennial census.

This time around, the city's population shifted so little between 1990 and 2000 that only a relative handful of the city's 442 precincts will be moved from one district to another. And none of the changes is expected to make a big difference for incumbent council members.

However, term limits will force at least three incumbents to seek either at-large council seats or the mayor's job, and that could mean several new faces on the council.

Three council members are so new that they can still seek two full terms.

District A councilman Scott Shea was elected slightly more than two years into the unfinished term of former Councilwoman Suzanne Haik-Terrell, who left the council when she was elected state elections commissioner. Because he filled less than half a term, Shea can still seek two full terms. He may nonetheless face several tough opponents when qualifying opens in December.

District D councilman Marlin Gusman was elected last fall and, like Shea, can now serve two full terms. He won special election to succeed the late Roy Glapion, who died in office after a long battle with cancer.

So far, no big names have surfaced against Gusman. However, there is talk in some quarters that Gusman could become the standard-bearer of the Morial faction in the mayor's race if Mayor Marc Morial fails to convince voters to change the city charter next month so that he can seek a third term as mayor. If "3T" fails and Gusman runs for mayor, the council will get a new face in District D. For now, however, it appears that Gusman has his sights set on re-election to the council.

In District E, Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis likewise won her seat in a special election last fall. She succeeded former Councilwoman Ellen Hazeur-Distance, who was elected clerk of First City Court. Like Shea and Gusman, Willard-Lewis can now seek two full terms on the council.

In two of those three instances, term limits factored into the council vacancies. Both Terrell and Hazeur-Distance were well into their second -- and final -- terms in their district council seats. Neither figured to mount a race for councilmember-at-large, so each moved up rather than out. It proved that term limits could reshape local politics not just during citywide elections, but also in between.

The fourth member of the council who won't be forced out by term limits this year is Council President Eddie Sapir. He is finishing his first term in that job. Sapir also has been mentioned as a potential candidate for mayor if "3T" fails, but he says he's focused on re-election to the council right now.

Those forced to move up or out include Councilman-at-Large Jim Singleton, District C Councilman Troy Carter and District B Councilman Oliver Thomas. Singleton and Carter are planning to run for mayor; Thomas has his eyes on an at-large council seat, which means he'd still be on the council, but not from a district.

Both Thomas and Singleton hail from the black political group BOLD, but Thomas won't necessarily be seeking Singleton's at-large seat. That's because all voters can vote for two candidates in that contest, which makes it a double free-for-all.

Overall, term limits have replaced redistricting as the single most significant change agent in local politics -- which is exactly what proponents of the idea promised.


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