Readers and viewers often assail New Orleans media for focusing on race in elections. The truth is that race has been a sadly reliable reflection of local voting patterns for generations. The citywide election of Feb. 6 went a long way toward smashing that unfortunate paradigm — and not just because black voters were the catalyst behind electing Mitch Landrieu, who on May 3 will become the city's first white mayor in 32 years. In precinct after precinct, voters showed they were willing to overlook race and class divisions. Landrieu won every precinct in New Orleans except one, and he did it with biracial support across the board; majority-white precincts gave him 70 percent of their votes; majority-black precincts, 62 percent. In the past, winning mayors got a huge majority of votes among one race and enough of a minority among the other to win — but never a big majority among both. That historic crossover vote is the real story of this election.
Black voters weren't the only ones who looked beyond race. Going down the ballot, white voters also played significant roles in the election of several African-American candidates. Consider the following results:
• Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman captured 82.9 percent of the citywide vote — in black as well as white precincts. For example, in the virtually all-white neighborhood of Lake Vista, he got more than 81 percent of the vote against his sole white opponent.
• Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell won citywide with 82 percent of the vote. In those same Lake Vista precincts, he got 67 percent of the vote against his white opponent.
• In the two open judicial races, whites voted heavily for the winning black candidates — Paula Brown and Tracey Flemings-Davillier — over white challengers. In several overwhelmingly white precincts of Algiers, both candidates beat their white opponents handily.
• In the first race for a citywide assessor, two incumbent assessors made the runoff, but the clear frontrunner was Erroll Williams, who is black. He got 45 percent of the vote citywide and led the second-place finisher, Claude Mauberret, by a wide margin. Mauberret, the only "major" white candidate in the race, got just 25 percent of the total vote. Finishing right behind Mauberret was Janis Lemle, an African-American who carried the "reform" banner. Between them, the two black candidates got about 70 percent of the vote, which means they got a huge chunk of white votes. Lemle won a clear majority in the mostly white "silk stocking" section of the 14th Ward, for example, and in the four whitest precincts of Algiers, Williams and Lemle together got 49 percent of the vote.
"Post-racial" may be too premature a description for these results, but they are encouraging. Some tried to divide the electorate, especially Mayor Ray Nagin. He often appeared on WBOK radio to stoke fears of a "shadow government," and he spent $50,000 essentially urging blacks to vote skin color. Thankfully, 34-year-old mayoral candidate James Perry offered the best rebuke of Nagin's cynicism: "I don't want to continue down the path that Nagin has set for New Orleans, which is a path as divisive as it is destructive, a path that is sown by racial mistrust and suspicions on both sides."
In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times said Landrieu's overwhelming victory gave him "a mandate to push past the political and social barriers that have slowed the city's recovery." We think it also gave Landrieu the responsibility to push past those barriers. He has promised meaningful improvements in the quality of life for all citizens, and that's how he'll be judged. In reversing Nagin's divisiveness, Landrieu must be careful to implement policies that help New Orleanians across the board, regardless of race or station. Blogger Clifton Harris (cliffscrib.blogspot.com) summed up that feeling when he wrote, "If all the things that supposedly haven't happened because of Nagin's incompetence don't start happening real soon after Mitch is sworn in, there will be a bunch of people saying, 'I told you so,' and we will be going back the other way in division."
Right now, Landrieu has the wind at his back. And, at least for this moment in time, New Orleans has more unity of purpose than it has ever known. This moment belongs to Mitch Landrieu ... and to all of us. Let's not squander it.