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Assessing the Runoffs

A Williams-Mauberret runoff was poised to break along racial lines

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The results of the Feb. 6 citywide primary continue to reverberate. Last week, Second District Assessor Claude Mauberret withdrew from the assessorial runoff, citing political as well as racial realities. His decision makes Third District Assessor Erroll Williams New Orleans' first citywide assessor — and leaves no citywide races on the March 6 ballot.

  Only two district races for City Council remain to be settled — in Districts A and E — and turnout in those areas could be extraordinarily low that Saturday.

  In announcing his decision not to contest the runoff, Mauberret noted that "the numbers are just not there" for him to beat Williams. He also cited concerns that "others would cast this election in racial terms and try to divide our citizens, who came together in unprecedented fashion on Feb. 6." Mauberret is white; Williams is black.

  A review of precinct returns bears out Mauberret's analysis. Williams led the four-candidate field on Feb. 6 with more than 45 percent of the vote, followed by Mauberret with 25 percent, Deputy Sixth District Assessor Janis Lemle with 23.6 percent, and Andrew Gressett with 6.3 percent.

  Mauberret led the pack in his Mid-City and Lakeview base and captured a plurality of the white vote citywide. Similarly, Williams led in his assessorial district, which encompasses the 7th, 8th and 9th wards (by far the largest and most populous of the seven districts) and garnered the lion's share of black votes citywide. Lemle ran well Uptown in and around the Sixth District.

  A Williams-Mauberret runoff was poised to break along racial lines, with Williams likely to get more crossover votes than Mauberret. Returns from Algiers, which was part of neither man's district, showed Williams and Lemle (the two black candidates) winning nearly half the vote in some of Algiers' whitest precincts.

  Blacks comprise 62 percent of the city's electorate, and even a significant disparity in black/white turnout still produces a black voting majority. With white candidates winning the mayor's race and five of seven council seats, Williams will become the most visible — and most powerful — black elected official in town.

  Mauberret's statement that "the numbers just aren't there" for him to win may have been an understatement. His sole consolation may be that he edged out Lemle, who carried the "reform" mantle for supporters of a single citywide assessor. In that regard, Williams' victory is ironic. During the 2006 referendum to combine the seven assessors' offices into one, he led the charge against the idea. Voters approved consolidation by a margin of 2-to-1, but when it came time to pick a single assessor, they opted for someone they know.

  Meanwhile, removal of the last citywide contest from the March 6 ballot will drive turnout even lower in the two City Council races that remain.

  District E, which includes the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, saw the lowest turnout in town on Feb. 6. The runoff there between state Rep. Austin Badon and former state Sen. Jon Johnson will be hotly contested by the candidates, but probably not well attended by voters. District E suffered the most devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, and many of its neighborhoods are still struggling to bounce back.

  Turnout will be better in District A, which includes Uptown, Carrollton, parts of Mid-City, and Lakeview, but overall it will be lower than it was in the primary. Former District A Councilman Jay Batt, a Republican, hopes to make a comeback in this contest, but he trailed political newcomer Susan Guidry, an attorney and Democrat, on Feb. 6. Guidry's 44 percent showing (to Batt's 39 percent) was a shocker considering Batt's political experience and host of endorsements, but it showed just how deep the "Anybody But Batt" sentiment runs in District A. It will be interesting to see if party labels mean more than the Batt-versus-Anti-Batt divisions. Batt has picked up the endorsement of fellow Republican Virginia Blanque, who got 15 percent of the primary vote, and he appears to be counting on party unity to carry the day.

  In the end, both council races will come down to turnout, and both could be very close as a result of lower-than-usual voter participation.

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