Alford: A busy and challenging political year awaits us

Louisiana politicos headed into this new year with heavy hearts and reminders that life is indeed precious. December took from us Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, who was well on his way to becoming a strong political voice for his generation, and former state Rep. Vic Stelly, who authored legislation in 2002 restructuring major components of the state’s tax laws. Both men died of complications from COVID-19.

As January 2021 unfolds, we’re also faced with the harsh reality that life marches on despite our losses, which doesn’t make any of it easier to bear. State officials have already announced plans for a March special election to replace Letlow and legislators will convene a regular session in Baton Rouge in April to take a closer look at some of the tax policies that defined Stelly’s career.

The virus that took these two, meanwhile, remains front and center for state legislators. Members of the House and Senate governmental affairs committee were scheduled to meet Tuesday to review emergency plans for this year’s elections in an effort to mitigate against further spread. If last year’s mitigation conversations are any indication, the decisions made will generate emotional appeals from two sides of an argument no one can truly win.

In addition to the race to replace Letlow in northeast Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, another special election will be needed in the New Orleans-anchored 2nd Congressional District when Congressman Cedric Richmond resigns this month to work for President-elect Joe Biden. Plus, there is another special election scheduled for February for House District 35.

That’s a lot of political action in a year that was only supposed to host municipal elections. Hopefully, this isn’t a political omen for the unexpected in 2021. Before these election-related events, this year’s primary political focus was on redistricting, but now even that is drenched in uncertainty.

The Louisiana Legislature is tasked with overseeing the redistricting process during special sessions every 10 years. With data from the U.S. census, lawmakers are charged with reviewing population numbers and reconfiguring district lines based on changes and other trends.

Federal law requires the Census Bureau to finish its headcount process by Dec. 31, but officials announced last week the tallying is not yet complete. Right now it appears as if state counts will be ready in February, although there are no guarantees. That delays the Louisiana Legislature’s planning and preparations, which will have at least two sessions this year. 

The stakes are high, for the regular session that begins in April. Legislators and administration officials view the session as the last chance this term at substantive tax revisions. That’s because taxes can only be considered during odd-numbered years, meaning the next tax session will be held in 2023, when lawmakers will be gearing up to run for reelection and, therefore, boldness will be in short supply.

Speaking of the 2023 statewide election cycle, this should be the year we start to see some serious moves being made for Louisiana’s top elected offices. A term-limited governor means the state’s premier post will open up, but there will also likely be competitive races for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Any serious candidates know they need to start fundraising and traveling the campaign trail sooner rather than later.

On the Republican side of things, there’s also a battle brewing for the heart of the party. Louis Gurvich Jr., the current chair of the Louisiana Republican Party, has a formidable opponent in businessman Eddie Rispone, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor last cycle. The GOP ranks have swelled over the past few decades—to the point where serious infighting is unavoidable. 

Above all else, 2021 will be a year where the divide between the right and left in Louisiana is either closed a bit through doses of goodwill or made more toxic through a refusal to compromise. It’s difficult to look at these prospects in a positive light at this hour, as recent years haven’t given us much to be hopeful about. 

One would think after a year like 2020 that collaborations and good vibes would be easy to come by. For now, that isn’t the case, even if it should be. Then again, Louisiana politics have never been pretty. In this new year, maybe we can simply shoot for civil, which would be a grand improvement.  

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.