(This is an expanded version of my print column in The Gambit for this week.)
Since Hurricane Katrina, people all over New Orleans have argued about whether and how our city should change. In many ways, those arguments are moot. The city has changed without anybody taking a vote. The only question is, how will those changes affect our politics?
The answer is up to New Orleans voters.
Lets take an objective look at how New Orleans has changed, and lets start by debunking a couple of myths and analyzing whats actually happening.
Myth Number 1: The city is shifting from a black majority to a white majority.
Reality: New Orleans still has a significant black majority in population and voter registration. On Jan. 1, 2006 right after Katrina the citys electorate was 63.6 percent black. The latest monthly figures from the Secretary of States office now peg that figure at 62.3 percent. Not much has changed.
Analysis: While the total number of registered voters has changed very little, the level of voter participation has changed dramatically, particularly among black voters. Except for Mayor Ray Nagins re-election bid in 2006 and Barack Obamas successful race for president last Nov. 4, black voters have stayed home in droves in most local elections. The results from Saturdays citywide special elections offer an extreme example of that, in fact. Turnout in much of City Council Districts D and E was extremely low.
In some instances, black voter participation since Katrina has been so low that whites comprised a majority or near majority of the votes cast. Thats how Jackie Clarkson got elected to the City Council over Cynthia Willard Lewis in November 2007, and Saturdays results may well reflect a white voting majority even though turnout among whites as well as blacks was extremely low. The results of those low turnouts are all around us: white majorities on the City Council and the Orleans Parish School Board, a white district attorney and even an Asian congressman from a solidly black-majority district.
The important thing to remember in each of those elections is that the outcome was determined by the low level of black turnout, not by some seismic demographic shift or extremely high white voter turnout. The lone exception to my observation on this point is DA Leon Cannizzaro, who historically enjoyed significant levels of support among black voters, even in elections with large black turnouts. He got the lions share of black votes and a whole lotta white votes as well in his successful bid for DA last year. In fact, he could well be the template for successful citywide campaigns in the future for black as well as white candidates. The key is to be a good candidate with lots of support in all corners of the city.
Which brings me to Myth Number 2: Voting patterns in New Orleans continue to follow racial lines.
Reality: In most elections since Katrina, white and black voters have crossed over in record numbers. Mitch Landrieu got 25 percent of the black vote in the 2006 mayoral primary, and his 20 percent of the black vote in the runoff was a record for a black-versus-white mayoral runoff. Other citywide officials, both black and white, have enjoyed large crossover votes since then. Ditto for Obama, whose vote total in New Orleans (nearly 80 percent) far exceeded black registration and turnout.
Analysis: While Nagin and some others love to throw down the race card to suit their selfish purposes, more and more New Orleans voters are looking past race.
So, what does this tell us about the next round of citywide elections?
It depends on whether the major candidates choose to follow the old paradigm of racial politics or bring a new paradigm to the table.
What new paradigm?
How about age? How about gender? In a reversal of earlier trends, New Orleans has gotten younger since Katrina. The single largest bloc of registered voters in town, in fact, is voters age 21-34. There are more than 78,000 of them. The next largest bloc is the nearly 52,000 voters age 45-54 and the young voters outnumber them by 50 percent.
New Orleans next mayoral race could see the same generational shift that defined Obamas campaign for president. For the first time in memory, in fact, New Orleans has a majority of voters under the age of 45. A total of 138,582 voters are younger than 45, whereas fewer than 134,000 voters are older than 45.
Most important of all, younger voters are far less likely to look at candidates through a racial prism, which gives us the potential for our first post-racial campaign for mayor.
For some, the idea of a race thats not about race is unfathomable. It will be interesting to see if any of the candidates in next years citywide elections think otherwise. No doubt some will work very hard to keep the racial prism in place, but time and our citys younger electorate is not on their side.
Then theres gender.
New Orleans and the nation have a female voting majority, but the gender gap is much more pronounced in the Crescent City. In fact, 56 percent of New Orleans registered voters are female, compared to 44 percent who are male. (Digression: According to the Secretary of States office, 108 New Orleans voters are listed as sex unknown. One could chalk that up to our citys long tolerance for gender-bending, but how does one explain the fact that more than twice as many voters 248, to be exact are listed as sex unknown in that bastion of God-fearin prayer-groupin Christianity and Flat-Earthliness, East Baton Rouge Parish, home of Rev. Jimmy Swaggart and Gov. Bobby Jindal? This surely must be grist for some future post. If some other blogger beats me to it, more power to ya. End of digression.)
Whats really intriguing to me is the fact that no list of major candidates for mayor thus far includes any high-profile women. With a 12-point gender gap in their favor, I have to wonder how long that political anomaly is going to last. As was the case with younger voters, it will be interesting to see which, if any, major candidate for mayor resonates among women voters.