Coastal Political Erosion

by Jeremy Alford

Coastal Cajun parishes normally dominate Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District, but western Acadiana is abuzz with activity these days.

More politicos than usual from the western side of the 3rd Congressional District are taking an interest in the area’s congressional seat these days. Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon’s decision to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter next year leaves the district with no incumbent. Would-be candidates have been lining up for months for a rare shot at an open Louisiana congressional seat.

A 3rd District contest normally begins with behind-the-scenes moves by power brokers in the Houma-Thibodaux area, which accounted for roughly 30 percent of the votes cast in the last contested election in 2006. Generally, as those two parishes go, so goes the rest of the district, which stretches from St. Bernard and parts of Jefferson parishes on the eastern end to Iberia Parish on the western side. The 2006 race drew a total of more than 136,000 voters (nearly 7,000 from St. Bernard and Jefferson), but since then some strong political winds have been blowing on the western side of the district.

The only officially announced candidate from Acadiana is New Iberia businessman Kristian Magar, a Republican. Magar hails from a region that trends Republican, whereas voters along the central coastline often go Democratic. Magar says he got into the race because the district needs a conservative voice, but adds that he won’t play the usual partisan game. “For me, party politics don’t play a role in why I’m running,” he says. “In fact, I hope voters in the district are getting past Republican and Democrat labels.”

Also expected to enter the race, according to GOP officials, is Republican New Iberia attorney Jeff Landry. Iberia was the third-largest parish in terms of voter turnout three years ago, producing nearly 19,000 votes. So far, Magar and Landry appear to be competing for the same votes and resources.

Then there’s the Acadiana wild card: state Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle of Breaux Bridge, who says he may switch from Democrat to Republican to seek the seat. Besides having close ties to Gov. Bobby Jindal, Angelle formerly served as president of St. Martin Parish, which yielded the fourth-largest turnout in the 2006 race. Also coming out of St. Martin Parish is state Rep. Fred Mills, D-Parks, who says he has been called by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about the race.

This is a big change from previous elections in the 3rd, which saw candidates from the southern and eastern ends of the district flood the starting gate. Dr. Pearson Cross, a political science professor at UL, says the lack of heavy hitters from “down the bayou” may be one reason for all the interest from Acadiana. “This could be a geographic distribution of lack of ambition,” he says. “You really have to wonder why we haven’t heard from any of the state senators in the district yet.”

The only announced candidate from the coastal parishes is Ravi Sangisetty, a Houma attorney, political newbie and lifelong Democrat. Hunt Downer, a Houma native and former speaker of the Louisiana House, is also considering the race. On the eastern side of the district, state Rep. Nickie Monica, R-Laplace, has been raising money for months and was initially courted by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. State Rep. Gary Smith, D-Norco, is also eyeing the contest.

Cross says redistricting and reapportionment after the 2010 Census could affect who’s running and who’s not. Because of post-Katrina population changes, adjoining districts could swallow the 3rd if Louisiana loses one of its seven congressional seats to reapportionment. Some areas could shift eastward into the black-majority New Orleans district, while others could join the 7th District in southwestern Acadiana or the Baton Rouge-based 6th District. “There would probably be more interest all around in the open seat if it wasn’t largely thought to be falling victim to redistricting,” Cross says. “That’s why this just doesn’t feel like a normal open seat.”

The conservative Louisiana Family Forum projected last year that Terrebonne and Lafourche could join the 2nd District in New Orleans to create a new minority district. More recently, the Rose Institute of State and Local Government published a study focusing largely on what Republicans might want. That study concluded that the GOP would probably like to expand the 7th District eastward — “especially if [the 3rd District] is divided and abandoned in 2011 because that region is solidly Republican.” The Rose study also suggested that Republicans might try to expand Baton Rouge’s 6th District to the southeast, into other Republican areas of the 3rd District — “not St. James Parish or St. John the Baptist Parish” — to make the district more conservative for years to come.

Whoever does run in the 3rd next year will find it uniquely challenging. Not only will candidates have to campaign in three media markets, but they’ll also have to pay attention to the outlying areas, because no one knows what the district might look like two years later.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]?subject=Coastal Political Erosion).