by Clancy DuBos
The recent citywide elections went very well for younger candidates. They produced a generational shift on the New Orleans City Council and elsewhere — and complicated Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s political landscape at the outset of his second term.
The elections also gave New Orleans a black majority City Council for the first time since 2007 and handed the Audubon Nature Institute its first political setback in decades.
Overall, the mayor had a very good day in the Feb. 1 primary, winning his own election with nearly 64 percent of the vote and backing a number of other successful candidates. Landrieu’s primary vote tally closely tracked the 65 percent he garnered four years ago. At 53, Landrieu also was among the “younger” candidates to emerge victorious. His major challenger, former Judge Michael Bagneris, is 64.
The mayor supported a number of candidates who won outright in the primary. They include four City Council candidates — incumbent Susan Guidry in District A, incumbent LaToya Cantrell in District B (who was unopposed), state Rep. Jared Brossett in District D, and incumbent James Gray in District E. The mayor also supported incumbent Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, who won re-election on Feb. 1.
The mayor did not fare so well in the March 15 runoffs, however. He backed a pair of term-limited council members who sought other council seats — Jackie Clarkson and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell — and both lost by big margins. He stayed out of the sheriff’s race and backed Dr. Jeffrey Rouse in the runoff for coroner. Rouse, 39, narrowly defeated Dr. Dwight McKenna, 72, in the March 15 runoff.
The Feb. 1 election of Brossett, who at 31 will become the council’s youngest member, presaged a new generation of leaders on the council. Brossett got his start in politics more than a decade ago as an aide to then-District D Councilman Marlin Gusman. He became a protégé of Hedge-Morrell when she succeeded Gusman in 2004, and he later won a state representative seat.
To a large extent, voters were looking for new faces, or at least something other than the same old faces. That was a big factor in James Gray’s win on Feb. 1 over former Councilmember Cynthia Willard-Lewis in District E. Though older than Willard-Lewis, Gray has not spent much time in public office. He held the District E seat for just a year when Willard-Lewis qualified against him. Willard-Lewis has spent most of the past 20 years in elective office — much of it on the council. She now has lost five of her last six races, including three for council at-large.
In the at-large council runoff, Hedge-Morrell, 66, lost to attorney Jason Williams, 41, by a margin of 68-32 percent. In Council District C, where incumbent Kristin Gisleson Palmer opted not to seek a second term, long-time Councilmember Jackie Clarkson, who is 78, fell to former Judge Nadine Ramsey, 58, by a 59-41 percent margin.
Pollster Silas Lee, who is a professor of sociology at Xavier University, said term limits — not age — was the major factor in Clarkson and Morrell’s defeats.
“More than anything, the topic of term limits and the perception that some were playing a game of musical chairs — violating the spirit of term limits — really resonated with voters,” Lee said, noting that Hedge-Morrell served nearly nine years as the District D council member, and Clarkson had served eight years representing District C before serving nearly two full terms at-large. Lee added that neither Clarkson nor Hedge-Morrell effectively countered the criticisms leveled at them by their younger opponents.
Hedge-Morrell and Clarkson have been among Landrieu’s staunchest allies on the council. He campaigned for both, leading some to speculate that he may have difficulty cobbling together four votes on the new council. A lot depends on how Landrieu and the new council members adjust to the new political landscape — and to one another.
It’s not as if Landrieu hasn’t done this before. In a December 2012 special election in District B, LaToya Cantrell defeated Dana Kaplan, who had Landrieu’s backing. Since joining the council, Cantrell has become an ally of the mayor.
For district councilmembers in particular, their popularity rests largely on their ability to deliver services for their constituents — getting potholes fixed, streetlights repaired, neutral grounds and playgrounds mowed, and drainage problems addressed. When it comes to delivering those services, it pays to have friends in the administration — and there’s no better friend than the mayor himself.
Pollster Lee, who worked as a consultant in the primary for Williams and Brossett, predicts the new council will want to establish its independence, up to a point.
“They are energized to establish their own identity,” Lee said. “But in a democracy, governing is about negotiating. It’s about reconciling differences. The job that both the mayor and the council face is avoiding gridlock. Voters do not want to see bickering. If there are differences, they should resolve them in private and get something done.”
Officially, all the victors express a willingness to work together.
“I am looking forward to working with the next council to keep our city moving forward,” Landrieu said in a prepared statement last week. “We have a lot of work to do, and I trust that the next council and I will be able to find common purpose and continue working together as one city.”
Lee added that the addition of several new faces could give the council some long-term stability. He cited the resignations of former Councilmembers Oliver Thomas, Jon Johnson and Arnie Fielkow over the past two terms as evidence of “flux” on the council.
“Now we have five new or relatively new council members who are about to start their first full terms — Cantrell, Brossett, Ramsey, Williams and Grey,” Lee said. “That’s a potential for eight years of stability, because more than likely, from historical patterns, they will all be re-elected — unless somebody screws up or decides not to run for re-election.”
ANOTHER SEA CHANGE ON THE COUNCIL is the re-establishment of a black majority. It was clear immediately after qualifying closed in mid-December that African Americans would hold at least four of the council’s seven seats. Ramsey’s victory in District C gives black voters a fifth council seat for the first time since 2002.
Ramsey’s margin of victory closely tracked District C’s voter registration by race (the district is 58 percent black), although Ramsey got significantly more crossover votes than did Clarkson. An analysis by UNO political science Professor Ed Chervenak showed Ramsey getting more than 25 percent of the vote in precincts with 90 percent or more white voter registration, while Clarkson got only 12 percent in precincts with 90 percent or more black voter registration.
“The contest between Clarkson and Ramsey was highly racially polarized, with Ramsey performing better in racially mixed precincts,” Chervenak said.
Lee said many voters and observers cling to “myths” about racial voting patters, color-blindness and racial neutrality.
“From a sociological perspective, you have to look at each campaign individually,” Lee said. “It’s not just racial classification, but the perception of racial equity and opportunities for minorities that matters. You have to look at all components when you examine an election.
“On the topic of race neutrality or color-blindness and other myths, you can’t eliminate the discussion of race. It’s logically inconsistent. If you’re not going to talk about race and gender, then you have to also eliminate other factors that define our society. Race was not the only determining factor in the mayor’s race, for example. People were looking for someone who could address issues and move the city forward, and who inspired confidence in their leadership.
“Race was a factor, but not the dominant factor. You always have to look at social and cultural dynamics. It’s not a one-dimensional discussion. It’s much bigger than that.”
The races for sheriff and council at-large did not produce significant racial voting patterns. In the sheriff’s race, incumbent Marlin Gusman trounced former Sheriff Charles Foti by a margin of 67-33 percent. Gusman got an overwhelming vote in black precincts, but he also won at least 40 percent of the white vote, according to Chervenak’s analysis. Gusman also is nearly two decades younger than the 76-year-old Foti.
In the runoff for council at-large, Williams dominated Hedge-Morrell in every voter category — he carried white and black precincts by similarly large margins, and he carried every council district as well. In fact, he beat Hedge-Morrell by a 2-to-1 margin in her own council district.
The coroner’s runoff appeared to track historic racial voting patterns more than any other contest on the March 15 ballot. Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, who is white, squeaked by Dr. Dwight McKenna, who is black, by a margin of 51-49 percent.
Chervenak’s analysis shows that Rouse got more crossover votes than did McKenna, which accounts for his win. In precincts with at least 90 percent black voter registration, Rouse got more than 20 percent of the vote, Chervenak said, whereas McKenna got less than 10 percent of the vote in the whitest precincts. Rouse’s election also followed the trend of younger candidates winning — he is 39; McKenna is 72.
PERHAPS THE MOST STUNNING outcome on March 15 was voters’ overwhelming rejection of a proposed millage for the Audubon Commission. Styled by proponents as a renewal of two existing millages, the proposed 4.2-mill property tax for Audubon was crushed by a margin of 65-35 percent. It failed in black and white precincts, and in every corner of town.
Audubon spent heavily on feel-good ads touting the success of the Audubon Nature Institute, the private non-profit that manages Audubon facilities, but an intense effort by opponents derailed the initiative. Opponents spent pennies in comparison to proponents, but the opposition’s message — delivered largely through emails and other digital media — resonated with voters.
While voters clearly love Audubon’s facilities, the proposed millage struck many as too soon, too much and too long. The current millages don’t expire until 2021 and 2022, which caused many to wonder why the rush to seek a renewal right now.
Another criticism was that the proposed millage would have raised nearly $12 million a year (in current dollars) for Audubon facilities at a time when public safety, recreation and infrastructure needs are severe. In addition, the 50-year lifespan of the proposed millage struck many as just too long.
The good news for Audubon is that it has lots of time to re-tool its proposal, but already there are calls for the institute to “share” any renewal with other local parks and green spaces. City Park, for example, is several times larger than Audubon but has no dedicated millage. Ditto for Armstrong Park and other parks.
Right now, this much seems certain: Before Audubon can go back to the well, it must give the mayor and the council a chance to prioritize the city’s current and long-term needs, starting with public safety and infrastructure.
If there’s anything left after voters are tapped for those needs, Audubon and other parks will surely get their shares.
By then, however, we may be analyzing the next mayor’s race.