As I watched Stacy Head eke out her 281-vote victory in the special election for an at-large seat on the New Orleans City Council on April 21, I wondered if she planned to write Mayor Mitch Landrieu a thank-you note. She should. Landrieu’s endorsement of Cynthia Willard-Lewis nine days before the election clearly energized Head’s electoral base as much as it did Willard-Lewis’.
The late Jim Carvin, dean of Louisiana political consultants, always reminded me that every election is a unique event. Had the at-large race been held a week earlier, or a week later, the results may not have been the same.
That’s not intended to take anything away from Head’s win. She deserved it — just as Willard-Lewis would have deserved it had she won. Both candidates worked as hard as any I’ve seen in nearly 40 years of covering politics.
But I don’t take away the same things from this election as others. I don’t, for example, consider this election a “game changer.” That term has become over-used, almost to the point of rendering it meaningless.
Katrina was a game-changer. Ray Nagin’s 2006 re-election was a mayoral game-changer, as was his subsequent failure to unite and lead — along with his utter incompetence and alleged corruption. Without Nagin’s failures, Landrieu might not have won in 2010, or at least not with the overwhelming (and potentially game-changing) support of white and black voters in an open primary.
As for Head’s election, I think it fits an emerging pattern on the Council — another game changer — that first took hold in 2006. To understand this pattern, we first must stop looking at the Head-Willard-Lewis contest in racial terms. (This is another example of me not agreeing with others’ analysis of the election.)
I don’t discount race as a factor in the election, but it was not the dominant factor. Moreover, I think most voters — black and white — are tired of folks playing the race card in local politics. I believe the council race was more a contest between “old” and “new” than between black and white, the races of the candidates notwithstanding.
To be sure, there are some who cling to the old paradigm. It not only fits their politics, but for some it also fits their pocketbooks. Shame on them.
This race, in my opinion, was about old-school politicians versus a new breed of office seeker. Consider the elections of Shelley Midura, Arnie Fielkow, James Carter and Head in 2006. Their elections were a game changer. They represented a new, post-Katrina political reality, one in which candidates emerged from neighborhood associations, civic organizations and the business community to challenge entrenched political families and personalities.
Four years later, Susan Guidry likewise came out of the neighborhood association movement, just as Kristin Gisleson Palmer came from the preservation movement. Against that backdrop, Head’s victory over Willard-Lewis — who, like Landrieu, is a second-generation politician who got into the game primarily through family connections — was merely a continuation of the game-changing elections of 2006.
The fact that relatively few voters “crossed over” to back a candidate who doesn’t look like them does not mean that race was the dominant factor. Rather, it means that both candidates failed to establish the requisite comfort levels among voters of the opposite race — only Willard-Lewis failed more spectacularly.
There are numerous examples of New Orleans candidates getting large percentages of crossover votes since Katrina. Each proved that voters will gladly back candidates who doesn’t look like them if they know and trust those candidates. To continue the mantra that it’s always about race is to deny what voters know all too well — and continue to teach us.