NEW ORLEANS—Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu appears to have routed five major challengers in today's mayoral primary, riding extraordinary biracial support to claim a rare first-round victory. With 90 of the city's 366 precincts counted, Landrieu had 64 percent of the vote, according to WWL-TV. His closest challenger, businessman Troy Henry, had 15 percent, according to the web site, NOLA.com.
When he takes office May 6, Landrieu will become the Crescent City's first white chief executive since his father, Moon Landrieu, left the job in 1978. Early analysis shows that Mitch Landrieu's victory owed to widespread crossover voting by African-Americans, who make up two-thirds of the city's residents, the site reported.
Because of that disparity, Landrieu predicted recently that his election could be an "uneasy moment" for black residents who still feel politically and economically disenfranchised. Making his third bid for City Hall's top job, Landrieu picked up enough votes to avoid a runoff that appeared to be a near-certainty just two months ago. So definitive was his win that political pundits declared Landrieu the victor just a half-hour after the polls closed, with the first of his opponents conceding before 9 pm.
His victory cements the Landrieu clan's status as Louisiana's preeminent political dynasty. As Landrieu, 49, a four-term state lawmaker from Broadmoor who has served as Louisiana's No. 2 official for six years, prepares to assume what is arguably the most powerful political job in the New Orleans region, his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, begins her 13th year in the U.S. Senate. Another sister, Madeleine, sits on the Civil District Court bench
For the first time in almost 30 years, there is no African-American front-runner in the New Orleans mayoral primary. That lead is currently held comfortably by Mitch Landrieu, the son of the city's last white mayor Moon Landrieu. The elder Landrieu held the office throughout the 1970s, during which time he racially integrated City Hall, helping usher in unprecedented black political leadership over the next three decades.
If polls can be believed, his son now enjoys 40 percent of black voter support—far higher than that of his rivals, three of whom are black.
Conventional wisdom has it that black New Orleanians are either realizing their "post-racial" moment—or they’re purposely turning away from black candidates out of a sense of racial indigestion, full from years of larded-up black rhetoric and only the dyspepsia of unimproved lives to show for it.
One veteran of the black city hall “franchise” is Flozell Daniels, president of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation and a former public policy specialist for the city. Daniels says his mother explained her reasons for voting for Landrieu:
"Here's what I know: Mitch worked on some important issues when in the Capitol. He worked on that juvenile justice stuff helping them young black boys. I don't know anything about these other candidates. I ain't never seen them do anything for black folks. I made that mistake last time with Nagin. I'm voting for someone who I've seen do something for black folks."
As for the post-racial theory, it doesn’t fully apply here. Most black voters are still concerned about how black communities will fare in the post-Katrina recovery. The idea that black leaders are not to be trusted doesn’t fully explain the swing vote either. That sentiment does exist, as is evident in many a barbershop, church or jitney conversation. But black citizens have not forgotten decades of untrustworthy, white political leadership that screwed black families as bad as anything in Nagin's portfolio.
Nor can it be said that African Americans have a monopoly on racialized voting. When Ernest “Dutch” Morial became the city's first black mayor in 1978, with 95 percent of the black vote, many of the 80 percent of white voters who did not vote for him abandoned the city. They left behind an urban center sapped of its tax base and a new black leadership struggling with severely depleted coffers.
Still, even with an eroding tax base, black elected officials were able to cultivate black power by forming political unions like the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD); Southern Organization for United Leadership (SOUL); Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors (LIFE), which was Dutch Morial's group; and Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP), which opposed Morial.
These organizations, and many like them, carved up black New Orleans like the Council of Berlin did Africa. Gate-keeping and power-tripping were definitely involved. The overarching goal, however, was preserving black political representation, especially for non-Uptown, low-income and middle-class black families, according to New Orleans politico Westley Bayas, who’s worked for a number of local Democrat campaigns.
Those families had little other choice but to depend on these political groups. Many felt that the white business elite class of Uptown—many of whom banked on segregation and inequities—did not have black communities' best interests at heart.
The new century, though, brought forth a black candidate who seemed more molded by that business elite. A political novice, Ray Nagin, declared that as mayor, he’d run the city like a business. He took office in 2002 propelled by 85 percent of white voters. But after Hurricane Katrina, he reprioritized blackness over business, albeit as a tool of political convenience for his 2006 campaign to be re-elected. This may be the point where racial reflux really kicked in.
Nagin's post-Katrina quote that the Crescent City would "be chocolate at the end of the day" was unsettling for many, even later for those who initially cheered it, as it became clear that state and federal officials didn't share Nagin's sense of humor. Flood-displaced families didn't need racial grandstanding; they needed their homes back.
While the local government itself was recovering, along with an invigorated citizen's participation mandate, Nagin used race to obstruct policies dealing with accountability and transparency at City Hall.
Bayas calls the race-card playing "tools of fear."
"Everything around transparency isn't about racism," says Bayas. "But politicians invoke race to provoke fear in order to win an election or swing things their way. It's irresponsible."
Race has played a clumsy role in the current mayoral primary. A lot of black support initially went to black candidate Ed Murray, a state legislator, but then he dropped out of the race, stating that this black support was itself racially divisive. Civil rights activist James Perry campaigned mostly avoiding discussing race and his battles (and victories) over fair housing; instead, he played up his experiences as an Eagle Scout. A white candidate, John Georges, said he was "the African-American candidate," later clarifying that he meant to say he is the candidate African Americans will vote for. Meanwhile, Troy Henry, who is the leading black candidate according to polls, held a press conference on race early in January where he accused the mainstream media of pre-deciding the race for a white candidate. Less than a month later, each of the three local black newspapers endorsed white candidates.
The New Orleans Times Picayune called the black newspapers’ endorsements a "surprising turn of events." But many black voters weren't surprised.
"I heard someone say, 'They are trying to take our city away,'" says Calvin Mackie, a New Orleans motivational speaker. "If you sit something out in the street, and someone comes and picks it up, they didn't take it away from you. We took the city and sat it on the street."
Edwin Buggage, editor-in-chief of the African-American newspaper New Orleans Data Weekly, wrote in an editorial, "As the world has changed around issues of race, today it is more an issue of wrong vs. right, not black vs. white."
But it was the Louisiana Weekly, the city's oldest African-American newspaper, who best summed up the role of race in their endorsement: "The power of the African-American community is not in having a reflection of our faces hold a seat, but in the power to choose whichever candidate we deem best to uphold our values and care for our concerns."