State Sen. Ed Murray’s withdrawal from the mayor’s race was the latest — and biggest — surprise in a contest that already has had more than its share of unexpected twists and turns. Here’s my take on what happened, why, who benefits, what’s next, and what it means in the long run:

What Happened

Murray’s campaign team had a meeting last Wednesday (Dec. 30) to review fresh poll numbers by Silas Lee and to discuss finances and strategy. The poll had Murray in low double digits but with potential to grow among black voters, most of whom (around 55 percent) were voting for frontrunner Mitch Landrieu. The lieutenant governor’s numbers in this poll showed him ahead by a large margin, with nearly 50 percent of the vote. When you account for the fact that “undecided” respondents in a poll tend not to vote, Landrieu already has a majority of the decided vote. Of course, that could change, but that’s where things stood last week.

The feeling among some of Murray’s top advisers was that, while much of Landrieu’s black support was rooted in a genuine sense of “buyers’ remorse” after Ray Nagin’s dismal performance over the past four years, a lot of that support was “soft” and could be peeled off Landrieu. It would require, however, that Murray attack Landrieu. It also would require Murray to raise another $400,000 to $700,000 to position himself to make a March 6 runoff. Murray already had loaned his campaign several hundred thousand dollars, and the message to him was that he might have to put more of his personal funds into the effort.

After Wednesday’s meeting, several of Murray’s top campaign folks began raising money and devising a strategy to go after Landrieu. There was even some hope that Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro might endorse Murray, and soon, which would give his campaign a boost.

Murray himself, however, was not comfortable turning the race into another contest about race. He spent the next few days doing a gut check and decided on Saturday that he wasn’t going to play a race card just to get elected. Once he made up his mind about that, he moved quickly to get out — surprising even some of his closest friends and supporters. He did not consult with his top campaign strategists before making up his mind to get out.

Why It Happened

The biggest surprise (and, to some, disappointment) to many in Murray’s inner political circle was that he made up his mind without consulting them. As is usually the case in a major campaign, Murray’s top advisers were “all in” and did not want him to give up. Had he consulted them about his misgivings, they would have pressed him to stay in the race. No doubt he knew that and chose not to seek their counsel — that is, not to have an argument that could have put friendships on the line.

Murray’s top supporters and close friends are hurt, and most don’t understand his logic. But anyone who looks at Murray’s decision as a moral choice — particularly anyone who knows Murray — should have no difficulty understanding his decision. I spoke with Murray on Sunday afternoon and, while the conversation was “off the record,” I got the clear impression that he wanted to follow his inner moral compass, not his steering committee’s political advice, on this one. There was also the matter of him possibly having to pony up several hundred thousand more of his own dollars to pursue a strategy that he didn’t like to begin with.

Politically, Murray faced an uphill fight against Landrieu, but so does everyone in this race. Anybody who runs for mayor of New Orleans — even a frontrunner — faces daunting political challenges. Running for mayor is not for the faint of heart. For Murray, this was a matter of not wanting to do things that he finds morally and political reprehensible in order to win … like playing the race card. He’s never had to do that in the past, it’s not his style, and he didn’t want to change who he is at this stage of his life just to win an election — not even a mayor’s race.

Who Benefits

The biggest beneficiary by far is Mitch Landrieu, for several reasons. First and foremost, Murray was easily the one candidate who might have beaten Landrieu straight up. Though not a gifted campaigner, Murray was the only candidate other than Landrieu who had genuine political and governmental experience. That would have allowed black voters to coalesce behind Murray not just because he’s black, but also because he was amply qualified. The remaining black candidates have tepid political experience (or none at all) by comparison, and that plays to Landrieu’s strong suit. Polls still show that, after eight years of “businessman” Ray Nagin, voters want someone who knows the political ropes. Now nobody fits that bill like Landrieu. Add a strong dose of buyers’ remorse, and it’s easy to see why he’s now a prohibitive favorite.

Second, Landrieu was near or above the magic 50 percent margin in most polls even before Murray got out of the race. He doesn’t need all of Murray’s votes, just some of them, to go solidly over the top. Given Murray’s philosophical and geographic base, it’s a safe bet that Landrieu will get a good share of Murray’s vote.

Third, if the leading black candidate effectively concedes that Landrieu can’t be beat — or can only be challenged at the risk of a racially divisive campaign — it further underscores the growing sense that a Landrieu victory is inevitable. That takes the wind out of everybody else’s sails and will make fundraising for most of them even more difficult than it is already. A note of caution to Landrieu, however: Don’t go popping any champagne corks just yet. There’s still five weeks left in the primary, and momentum has a funny way of changing in a campaign. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

What’s Next

There are still plenty of others in the African-American political community who don’t mind playing the race card. In fact, they can’t wait to play it. They’re looking for a new horse, but the pickings are slim. Businessman Troy Henry has great energy and fundraising potential, but on paper and on the stump he looks and sounds A LOT like Ray Nagin in 2002. Lawyer James Perry is articulate and passionate, but he has no political stripes whatsoever — and nothing in his background suggests that he would lend himself to a mau-mau campaign or sell his soul to the kind of political players he’s been running against. Former Judge Nadine Ramsey likewise seems ill suited to such a campaign, and she also seems to be struggling to raise money. Henry may emerge as the new consensus black candidate by default, but will middle-class black voters opt to “keep the franchise” at the risk of electing another Ray Nagin? That’s what the next few weeks will tell us — assuming the rest of the field, collectively, can keep Landrieu under 50 percent.

Speaking of the rest of the field, where does all this leave John Georges and Rob Couhig, the two remaining white candidates? Pretty much where they’ve been all along — struggling for relevance. Georges has enough money to stay on television, but he and Couhig are basically competing for the minority of white voters who hate all the Landrieus. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of black voters seem ready to support Mitch.

Long-Term Impact

Murray’s exit has implications even beyond this race. Had he stayed in the contest and won, or even had he lost to Landrieu in a runoff, he would have emerged as the top political player in the black community. He would have filled the void left by Ray Nagin’s exit from City Hall and Bill Jefferson’s fall from grace.

Now there’s no one to fill that void. And it’s a huge void.

The lack of a viable second-tier of black candidates in this contest is not a new phenomenon. Go back four years to Nagin’s re-election campaign, and it’s clear that the black community was having a leadership crisis even then. Despite all of Nagin’s failures in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, no one of substance rose from the black community to challenge Nagin. All those black political groups that include the word “leadership” in their names and/or mottos have failed to produce a new generation of black leaders ready to compete citywide.

Go back a generation to Dutch Morial and you’ll see a guy who mentored aspiring young black men and women. Murray was one of Dutch’s protégés. So is Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Judges Michael and Dennis Bagneris, and others. But, after Marc Morial was mayor, there’s a break in the line of succession. Most of the old political organizations are in tatters, and the next generation of young black leaders is either not interested in being mayor or not interested in politics, period. One prominent black elected official confided to me recently, “I tell my child not to go into politics because it’s a rotten business.”

So where does that leave a community that wants to hold onto a franchise that it fought for decades to get?

Maybe, as one black friend of mine suggested recently, it’s time to re-examine (and possibly re-define) what the franchise is. “What we worked so hard to accomplish for decades was not supposed to be just about us getting elected,” he said. “It was supposed to be about judging people not on the basis of the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. For years we gave that message to white folks hoping to get blacks elected. Now it seems to be our turn to hear it played back to us.”

For a lot of reasons, Murray’s exit is part of a larger story of this watershed election.

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