Storms Alter Louisiana Politics

By Michael A. Fletcher and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 14, 2005

The massive population shift caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita holds seismic political implications for Louisiana, which faces a near-certain reduction of its congressional delegation and a likely loss in black-voter clout that could severely affect the state's elected Democrats.

Less than two months after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving much of New Orleans and surrounding areas unlivable, Louisiana officials are beginning to grapple with the bewildering new political landscape. The storms and resultant flooding caused more than 1 million residents to flee their homes, many for far-flung destinations from which they may never return.

In a public service announcement released yesterday, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is in charge of the federal government's recovery effort, said: "In many areas, like the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans . . . the areas will be uninhabitable for many years."

The unprecedented population shift is likely to have its first political impact in New Orleans, where Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who captured 44 percent of the black vote in 2002, and other municipal officials are facing a February election.

The election will be one of the most important in the city's history, with the winners set to play a pivotal role in deciding how the city will be rebuilt. But with only a smattering of the city's 484,000 residents back home, it will also be an election in which voters will be difficult to find and residency hard to prove, leaving candidates unsure of how to campaign.

"I'm in Jackson, Mississippi, at a hotel now -- does that make me a voter here?" asked Vincent Sylvain, a New Orleans voting rights activist. "We are citizens of Orleans Parish in the state of Louisiana and must maintain our right to vote here. That's the only way we can hold elected officials accountable."

Officials are undecided on how to conduct the election. Some have suggested opening polling places in Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, La., and other cities that house large numbers of evacuees. Others have suggested electronic voting. Officials are hoping to secure funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for radio and television ads to publicize the election to evacuees.

Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater has formed a task force of party leaders, elected officials and civil rights advocates in an attempt to sort out the layers of issues presented by the evacuation.

In New Orleans alone, nearly half of the voting precincts were destroyed by Katrina. Many of the neighborhoods most affected include overwhelmingly Democratic black communities in the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth wards. And while many African American voters remain in Louisiana, a number significant enough to affect a close election have left.

In political circles last month, "there was talk that the Democrats' margin of victory [in Louisiana] was living in the Astrodome in Houston," said Ronald D. Utt, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

That reality has left some Democrats concerned that the party could lose its tenuous grip on power. Both Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's 2003 election win and Sen. Mary Landrieu's 2002 reelection victory came with margins of fewer than 60,000 votes, which included overwhelming support from African Americans.

"All of that's gone. So you are going to have a restructuring," said state Sen. Derrick Shepherd (D-New Orleans), a member of the elections task force.

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