Monday, 24 January 2011 18:08

New Orleans New Rep. Bishop And Louisiana Reapportionment

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Christopher Tidmore, Louisiana Politics A decade ago, a young Wesley Bishop faced off against an equally young Cedric Richmond for the LA State House 101 seat in New Orleans.   The former came in fourth, with 14% of the vote.  For some, that might have been the end of a career in public service.  For Bishop it was only the beginning.  On Saturday Evening, with 75% of the vote, Bishop bested two challengers to win a term of less than a year in the State Legislature.

      It was one of two special election results this past weekend.   Fred Mills also claimed the District 22 State Senate seat, but, unlike him, Bishop has a fight on his hands as soon as the special redistricting session convenes in March.   Differing from most legislative freshmen, as soon as he takes office, Bishop must immediately engage in an all or nothing battle to ensure that his House district will even survive into the next legislative term.  

      "My first job is making sure that New Orleans East continues to be represented by two State Representatives," an energetic Bishop told the reporters assembled on election night.   

      His is not an idle worry.   The assumption up until the recent weeks has been that Orleans Parish, with its population decline of just over 120,000 people since Hurricane Katrina, would lose no more than three House districts (and one Senate seat).  Fortunately for legislators who normally practice incumbency protection at times of redistricting, with two planned retirements from the House, and the effect of term limits on another seat, there seemed to be a good chance that no sitting House member would be forced to run against another.  

      As the logic went, GOP Speaker Jim Tucker, upon completing his third and final term in the House, would render his Algiers Caucasian precincts to another Rep, possibly fellow Caucasian Algerian Jeff Arnold or one of the East Bank Reps in need of a population boost.  (African-American precincts would be easily transferable, under this model, to at least three House members who represent seats that run along the River on the East Bank.  Jumping the Mississippi could help any, most especially Charmaine Marchand, who suffers from a massively depopulated district in her Ninth Ward seat.)

      Retiring African-American Democrat Juan LaFonta could fill in gaps for fellow Black Democrat Jared Brossett or White Democrat Helena Moreno in his Marigny and downtown precincts.  And, the departure of Uptown Democrat-turned-Republican Walker Hines would provide additional districts most likely for Republican State Rep. Nick Lorusso, who has seen his Lakeview District decimated by Katrina, and needs a boost of almost 30,000 voters.  (Pieces of that seat could also go to Rep. Neil Abramson, allowing the Caucasian Democrat to form a more Uptown-Centric House District, and correspondingly allowing other central city legislators to shift to more populated precincts on the western side of the City.)

      The retirements, while not in the areas that had lost the most population, (in fact mostly in the areas that had lost none or gained some), still provided the redistricting panel a pathway to redraw seats around Orleans that would allow even the depopulated East to retain both the newly elected Wesley Bishop and long-time Rep. Austin Badon. [Audio of Tidmore discussing the impact of redistricting can be found in the "previous shows" sections of]

       Now, rumors out of Baton Rouge seem to indicate that Orleans may be on the chopping block for a loss of four State House seats--one more than expected--due, in part, to the fact that the city came out relatively unscathed after the 2000 redistricting.   Pushing the effort to move a fourth seat out of Orleans is a coalition of White and Black Acadiana and South Central LA lawmakers who wish to create more African-American majority seats in the River Parishes to Central Louisiana corridors.  

       This division in the Black caucus undermines the ability of city legislators to use African-American fraternal relations to ward off a loss of seat.  In other words, Louisiana would contain just as many Black Majority seats in the State House, just not as many in Orleans, or so the argument goes.  

       As the most junior legislator, Wesley Bishop's District 101 would be the number one target to be eliminated.   Since two of the three retirements are in White held seats, it would be difficult under most maps to eliminate another Caucasian seat in Orleans without affecting White minority rights in the City.  (Walker Hines does represent a district with a Black Majority voter registration of 55%, but Black Majority seats usually contain at least 61% African-American electorates to guarantee a Black Representative.)

       Bishop, in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, expressed his confidence that he will still have a seat from which to run in October 2011.  "In terms of possible seat shifts, I have had several conversations with many members of the Black Caucus and...I am confident that I [will] able to represent the 101st District," after November 2011.  

       It is a question of the power of the New Orleans region as a whole, that Bishop believes will encourage Republicans and Democrats, Whites and Blacks, to join together to keep his seat intact.  "You can be sure that I will aggressively fight to make sure that the City of New Orleans maintains its ability influence, pass or defeat legislation," he explained, "based up on the merits of the bill and the effect that it has on  the quality of life of our citizens," not on whether the city will be steamrolled by the rest of the state.

       Were Bishop to lose district 101, he would likely be drawn into the adjoining seat of Austin Badon, yet do not expect the two men to be at battle in the coming legislative session.  They each have a special reason to cooperate, even if they might face one another in a brutal election in October--their day jobs.  Both men serve as senior administrators of SUNO, and know they must strongly ally if they are to have any chance of stopping the Jindal Administration from merging their historically Black College with the University of New Orleans, as the Governor has suggested in recent days.

       In fact, it was mostly Wesley Bishop's work at SUNO that led Ebony magazine would name the young attorney as one of the Top 30 Young Leaders in the Nation for his educational and motivational work.    The New Orleans native serves as Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), and holds the distinction of being the youngest senior level administrator and Chancellor's cabinet member in the history of the university. 
       This followed from his professed advocacy for Historically Black Colleges/Universities and a tenured professor of Criminal Justice, Bishop quickly rose through the ranks to become the youngest Program Director, Department Chair and Graduate School Dean at the institution. Also at the age 29, the young attorney served on the Board of Directors for the New Orleans International Airport - making him the youngest airport commissioner in the country. 
       Bishop in a second bid for the Legislature, earned not only just about every endorsement in the City, but also the support of the man who once beat him, now Congressman-elect Cedric Richmond.   As Bishop explained to The Louisiana Weekly in the days right before the election, "I am running for the Legislature because I feel that I have the ability to represent the interest of everyday people and be a voice for those individuals who don’t have lobbyists and who can’t afford to come to Baton Rouge to advocate for what they need and deserve." 
      In his view, he continued, "My experience as an attorney and educator uniquely qualifies me to serve as State Representative for the 101st House District.   As a product of its public schools, churches, playgrounds and neighborhoods, I am keenly aware of the needs, wants and desires of the residents of this district."
    "As a lawyer/educator and member of the legislative team for the Southern University System, I have helped to fashion legislation and work with lawmakers throughout the state to assure that the citizens of Louisiana get the very best.  As a career educator who spends a great deal of time in our high schools, I am in touch with the challenges our teachers, parents and students face on a daily basis.  It is my intention to continue to do in-office what I do  right now, that is to be a strong effective advocate for a higher quality of life for the  people of this great city that I call home. 
       "I have developed a detailed plan to address many of the issues that concern this district.  My top three item in that plan are: First, Economic Development and Increased Access to Goods and Services..   We should not have to go outside of our neighborhoods to buy basic services.  This robs Orleans parish of the tax revenue that could be used in our city.   This plank also includes the Immediate Re-opening of Methodist Hospital – I believe it is absolutely unacceptable that the citizens of New Orleans East are still without quality healthcare five years after the storm.  Recovery has been too slow."
       "Second, Crime Prevention and Safety, and third, Education. Our K-12 educational system is in desperate need of repair.  There is no greater priority than the education of our children.  We need to give our parents and educators all of the tools they need to produce highly educated graduates who are prepared to take on the world."
        A major effort will be made in next year's legislative session for a single board for Higher Education, to ameliorate the massive budget cuts.   Bishop, though, is opposed.  "I do not favor a single board for higher education.  Historically Black Colleges like SUNO, Southern and Grambling are the primary reason that many individuals have been able to join the middle class and provide for their families.  HBCU’s are critically important, if not the most important tool that can lift this society."
        "We get more bang for our buck from our colleges by fixing the K-12 system that serves as a feeder to higher education.  Colleges/Universities don’t control the pool of students that apply, high schools do.  When we begin to produce a more highly trained student out of high school, you will see more bang for your buck in higher education in the form of increased retention and graduation rates at our colleges."
          When asked, though, how to maximize education resources, Bishop simply said, "The Louisiana Consent decree was in 2005.  During that time the state monitored the education systems to assure that program duplication did not occur."  The SUNO Vice Chancellor offered no specific answers how to manage the budgetary climate within the university budget.
          Another area of debate will be a single board for the Port systems of Louisiana as State Senator Conrad Appel has proposed..  Of the concept, Bishop observed, "I am unsure as to whether a single board for our port systems is the answer.  On its face, there is some merit.  However, I am concerned that it will not take into account the unique nesses of some ports –particularly the Port of New Orleans.  Having served on the New Orleans Aviation Board for several years, I know that we do not have a single board for our airports.  I would need to dig into the details of this proposal and consult with the members of the Port of New Orleans board and other local leaders to determine if this change would be in the best interest of my district."
      To the questions, what is role of an African-American Democrat in an increasingly Republican and Caucasian dominated House of Representatives, and should the parties organize their leadership elections strictly on party registration, or is the "alliance" system of cross party qualification superior, Bishop simply replied, "The role of the State Representative from the 101st House District is to represent his constituents in a manner that assures justice, equality and fairness in all matters that affect them on a daily basis.  Party leadership, both locally and nationally, is currently elected based on party registration and membership..  I would not advocate a change from that practice."  
     (Currently, a plurality Democratic State House elected a GOP Speaker, Jim Tucker, thanks to the support of Orleans area African-American Democrats.   Bishop did not state whether or not he would vote to do so again in the next term.   Due to their support, according to former State Rep-turned State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, several key committee assignments in a GOP dominated chamber went to local Black Democrats.)
       Bishop went on record supporting a state law that would require a public referendum and voter approval before mileages could be rolled forward.  Under such a proposal, the vote at City Hall last week, rolling forward mileages after rolling them back thanks to higher revenues from rising assessments, would not be legal in the future.  "I would be willing to consider that option," Bishop continued, "if I feel that it is in the best interest of the citizens of House District 101."
        He also came out in favor of the legislature and the Governor de-dedicating the third of the state budget that is currently dedicated funding by STATUTE, as opposed to the third that is dedicated by Constitutional Amendment, as a means to lessen cuts to colleges and hospitals.  "I would be willing to consider any option that allows us to take the target off of Higher Education and Healthcare and more evenly distribute any needed cuts.  These areas should be absolute priorities."
         Bishop does oppose efforts by Gov. Jindal to change the law and allowing the executive branch to be able to cut across the board 10% of budget in times of deficit.  "I would not support that change.  The governmental system of checks and balances was put in place to assure that no one branch of government could overstep it bounds and arbitrarily take action without the approval of the other branches of governments.  This is true on the federal level and it is indeed necessary here in the State of Louisiana.  I believe that the average citizen questions the logic behind a state governmental system that protects everything else but higher education and health care.  Access to quality health care, whether for your self, your family or your child, is vital.  Education is the most important tool that can help provide a higher quality of life for our citizens.   It is my goal to help usher in a mindset that I believe increasingly exist today, that being a state that is sick and tired of being first in everything that is bad and last in everything that is bad.  We can do better."
        When asked how he would make up the deficits, Bishop offered no specific reply to that portion of the question, what he would cut, beyond what he said above.  He did, however, endorse a proposal favored by conservatives that would put a constitutional limitation of growth in the budget, similar to Colorado's TABOR--which limits state governmental growth to the rate of inflation.  "I would be willing to consider that option if I feel that it is in the best interest of the citizens of House District 101," he said once more.
        Qurried, "What can you do to speed up Hurricane recovery in your district?  What unique economic development proposals do you offer?" Bishop responded, "Once citizens are given their fair amount of road home monies, billions will still remain.  I would be in support of providing much of that money to address the lack of resources in HD101:  health care and hospitals, special business incentives, schools, TIF, address blight issues, etc.
          Bishop did refuse to take a no new taxes pledge outside of tobacco taxes.  "No I will not.  It’s easy to say 'no new taxes.'  It is politically popular. But after the sound bite is over with, what are you going to say yes to in order to help address the issues that need to be solved?  Whenever a deficit occurs you only have two choices: 1) increase revenue or 2) decrease spending.  We need real answers to the very real problems and not just canned responses."  
         As to what resources are their available to accelerate the reopening of a Hospital in New Orleans East, Bishop was not specific, however, he did rule out a cooperative endeavor with the new proposed St. Bernard Parish Hospital just down 510.  "Creative minds on the state and local level must come together to identify these resources.  In terms of any proposed agreement, I would not.  New Orleans East had its own hospital prior to Hurricane Katrina and must have one today.  This issue is non-negotiable.  The size of our citizenry mandates that."
         As to helping, as a a legislator, downtown's Canal Street be reborn, Bishop proposed, First, "provide incentives for businesses who wish to either re-locate or expand to the DDD", second, "work with the Mayor and the City Council to actively solicit/urge/recruit businesses to the area," and third, work with New Orleans Tourism/Visitors Bureau to continue to showcase NO as a first class city."
       Bishop thinks little of Paul Pasterek's plan to continue the independence of RSD schools at their discretion.  "I support the return of our schools to local control.  The RSD was never intended to be a long-term solution.  In terms of going forward, it is not an either or proposition.  We can have local control while maintaining the successes that are currently in place at several of our schools.  Our educational system must provide a place for everyone.  We cannot selectively decide who we want to educate and who we don’t.  We seem to be operating on extremes with a system of schools, instead of a school system. Plan does not adequately address the provision of quality education for all of our students."
          However, noting that the RSD has already taken over schools in other parishes outside Orleans, he would not rule out that model elsewhere, nor take a stand against a state mandated Charter Magnate School in every parish.  He gave the same reply as twice before.  "I would be willing to consider that option if I feel that it is in the best interest of the citizens of House District 101."
        As for further changes to the post-New London constitutional amendment that outlaws the use of Eminent Domain to take blighted properties, Bishop said, "Irresponsible property owners need to have there properties taken…safety hazards and create an eyesore that effect the entire neighborhoods...Exceptions should be made...Eminent domain is black letter law put in place for particular instances."
       Reflecting on his career, Bishop concluded, "I am grateful for all that this city has allowed me to experience.  I will work hard to improve the quality of life for all of our citizens and provide our people to put to use their god-given abilities in whatever manner they so choose.  I am a firm believer that the best New Orleans is not behind us; the best is yet to come.  This is our city, we are its future and this is our time.  I am a son of this city who chose to make it my home.  I am committed to serve and ready to lead."  

Christopher TIdmore is on the radio each Weekday Morning on WSLA 1560 AM New Orleans, online

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