As we enter the final week before New Orleans' historic municipal elections, Louisiana Justice Institute presents excerpts from Race, Representation, and Recovery: Documenting the 2006 New Orleans Mayoral Elections, by Katherine Cecil. We believe her analysis of the 2006 elections forms an important basis for understanding the current election.
Suffering fierce criticism over his less-than-admirable leadership skills during the aftermath of the storm as well as for the city’s lack of hurricane evacuation preparation, Mayor Ray Nagin had become politically vulnerable. New Orleanians, returned and still displaced, were to witness a close election in which Nagin’s top four challengers were white. One of the challengers was Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the son of the last white mayor who had left office nearly thirty years earlier. Times-Picayune staff writer Frank Donze wrote, “Six months ago, incumbent Ray Nagin appeared headed for a problem-free re-election. But the city’s struggle to recover from the catastrophic storm – along with critics attacking Nagin’s performance – has turned conventional wisdom on its ear, leaving him in a fight for his political life.” However, history was on Nagin’s side, and as John Mercurio pointed out on NPR Weekend, “no mayor in New Orleans in the past sixty years has been turned out of office and no first term mayor in the past eighty years has lost office.”
Moon Landrieu’s 1977 departure from City Hall signaled the beginning of the period in which African-Americans would attain a voting majority within New Orleans, and since the early 1980s, elections have involved a variety of cross-racial voting reflecting variations upon the same theme: New Orleans voters have formed trans-racial political coalitions in the election of alternating progressive and reactionary mayors that reflected the mood and tenor of the times. In 2002, Ray Nagin fit within this moderate to conservative continuum.
In elections where black and white voting population levels were not at parity, mayoral victories largely constituted a merging of different black and white interests where policy and platform were more in the foreground than race, where white voters co-opted candidates of color in whom they could find representation to their benefit, where distinctive socio-economic and racial groups made compromises to promote their respective agendas, and at times, merely representation without specific agendas. As political scientists Baodong Liu and James Vanderleeuw found in their research, “whites may develop a strategic approach to maximize their own political power while their ideology may or may not remain the same.” Indeed, if politics is the art of strategically applied comprise within the public sphere, then politics involving significant minority populations, in both senses of the word, would need to be more pronounced in the art and application of concession.
The 1969 and 1973 elections in which Moon Landrieu was voted into office involved concessions of this kind, and in the 1969 runoff, he was elected as a progressive Democrat from a coalition of 90 percent of the black vote and 39 percent of the white vote. Moon Landrieu’s legacy came to be defined by his active promotion of African-Americans within his Administration, as department heads and as prominent political participants. After two terms in office, Moon Landrieu was followed by another progressive Democrat and the first African-American mayor of New Orleans, Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial in 1977 and again, in 1982. During his first term, Morial had garnered 19 percent of the white vote and 95 percent of the black vote, which saw a union between progressive white voters and African-American voters, and his rise to power signified a new time in city politics, allowing for unprecedented levels of black representation within local political power structures.
Greatly contrasting to his rival and predecessor, the more reactionary Sidney Barthelemy pioneered his own brand of racial politics, and in 1986, he pushed a pro-business agenda that appealed to white conservatives, and he was brought to office receiving most of his support from the white community, while Bill Jefferson, his principal opponent in the election, had garnered a much larger majority of the African-American vote. In his first election, Barthelemy had merged conservative middle-income white and black voters, and through this coalition conservative interests again found representation in City Hall. This coalition didn’t necessarily include a program for the betterment of all New Orleanians, and as the historian Arnold Hirsch writes of the Barthelemy election, “Morial’s progressive biracial coalition had been transformed into a conservative one that knit together whites and a patronage-oriented black leadership that had no agenda beyond its own perpetuation.”
However, when the white candidate Donald Mintz entered the race in 1990, thinking the incumbent sufficiently unpopular to allow for more crossover voting, Barthelemy switched from being the candidate to receive the most white votes to become the candidate to receive the most black votes, and the contrast of these two elections illustrated the mutability of the candidate’s race as a factor depending upon his or her agenda, his or her primary base of support, and the competition of the opponent in the runoff. Indeed, “Four years later, facing white challenger Donald Mintz, Barthelemy depended on near-universal black support and scant white backing to win.” Intriguingly, it is said that Dutch Morial died before a much-anticipated endorsement of Mintz, and that had he done so, this might have significantly altered Barthelemy’s ability to garner black votes during his re-election bid. When Marc Morial followed in his father’s political footsteps, and entered City Hall in 1994 and again in 1998, the Mayor’s office was led back to a more progressive coalition, which saw a union of white progressives and African-American voters.
The pendulum of moderate progressives to conservative coalitions swung again when Ray Nagin entered into politics in 2002. Nagin had not previously held elected office and came from the private sector. As Vice President of the New Orleans cable company, Cox Communications, he had been a member of the New Orleans Business Council, a majority white organization that represented the top sixty-five businesses in Greater New Orleans. Like Barthelemy, the Republican turned Democrat Ray Nagin came from a pro-business platform and had no agenda for ameliorating the economic opportunities for the majority of African-Americans within Orleans Parish. Nagin was funded largely by a white conservative business elite, and was elected Mayor of New Orleans with 86 percent of the white vote and 40 percent of the black vote, winning against the popular New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Chief Richard Pennington, whose ties to Marc Morial were seen by the majority of white conservative voters as antithetical to their interests, despite his success in reducing crime rates.
As a light-skinned and Catholic person of color, Nagin’s “Downtown” and often-debated “Creole” credentials drew other interesting parallels to the conservative Barthelemy, a mayor viewed by local black media outlets as having enough links to the “Uptown white power structure” to be controlled by it. Like Barthelemy, Nagin was seen as a candidate whose interests intersected largely with those of the white community of most socio-economic levels, and although his first Administration was marked by some effort to oust local corruption, Nagin’s aim was mainly targeted towards African-Americans and the working-class, most notably tax evaders and unlicensed New Orleans cab drivers. But although the majority of black support went to Pennington, Nagin was also elected to office by middle-income African-American and white voters, and like each of the recent mayors before him, Nagin built a coalition in order to win. Had Hurricane Katrina not devastated the city of New Orleans, Nagin would have maintained his more conservative alliance between black and white voters and would have been re-elected to a second term without significant opposition. However, as the 2006 election was to reveal, the city is to a large extent still redefining the nature of these coalitions, and the deterioration of inter-group trust within race relations post-disaster played a prominent role in the election and early recovery period.
(You can read the complete essay online here.)
Born in the UK, and living in New Orleans since 2001, Katherine Cecil began her film career as a researcher and field producer. She formed her small company CecilFilm Productions shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and is currently working as a co-producer on a documentary looking into recent changes to the New Orleans public school system.