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Harbingers of Change

The real paradigm shift came from the voters, not the candidates. The people wanted change. They hungered for it.



Regardless of who has won on Saturday, this mayor's race saw some major paradigm shifts in the local political landscape. I wonder how many elected officials and consultants noticed.

The primary offered just a hint of what was to come, and it was about as subtle as a heart attack. Voters rejected all elected officials and instead elevated two political newcomers to the runoff. Granted, Richard Pennington was a already household name when the campaign began, and Ray Nagin unquestionably was more comfortable in front of a camera (and an audience) than any of his opponents.

But the real paradigm shift came from the voters, not the candidates. The people wanted change. They hungered for it.

As is often the case, the candidates with the most to gain from the status quo were the last to see the freight train headed their way. By the time they realized what was happening, they had all gotten run over by it.

As relative political outsiders, Nagin and Pennington had the most legitimate claims to be the harbingers of change. Their messages therefore were the most credible and the best received.

No one would have predicted at the outset that two outsiders could make a runoff for mayor in New Orleans. After all, they drew from the same pool of voters. In this case, the pool of voters demanding change was so large that it carried both men past the familiar faces and into the runoff.

Think about it. Pennington and Nagin, against 13 other candidates, captured more than 53 percent of the vote in the Feb. 2 primary. That's almost as much of the vote as Marc Morial won (54 percent) against a single opponent in the runoff of 1994 -- and a bigger margin than that by which the late Dutch Morial won his first mayoral runoff in 1977.

How did that happen?

The short answer is that voters from all corners of town matured. Black voters no longer listened to the traditional political organizations. White voters no longer cared if there was a white candidate in the field.

UNO pollster Dr. Susan Howell summed it up best after her latest survey was released: in this campaign, economic and educational lines, not race, decided the outcome. Thus did Nagin galvanize upscale and upwardly mobile black and white voters in the primary.

Pennington, meanwhile, led the crowded field among poorer black voters, many of whom saw in him a trusted figure who delivered reform at NOPD. Again, the groundswell for change was so strong that there were plenty of votes for both to make the runoff.

Along the way, voters also paid homage to a time-honored political truism: don't try to fake it. Paulette Irons learned that lesson the hard way.

In the runoff, it was Pennington's turn to go to school. The more he attacked Nagin, the stronger Nagin became. Literally, every time the Pennington camp launched a new attack ad, another poll would show Nagin's margin growing larger.

This was bad news for Pennington, who lost control of his campaign and, worse, lost credibility. Blame that on Congressman Bill Jefferson and the Washington-based consultants that he brought in after ousting the Chief's local team. Jefferson's formula was strictly the old paradigm. The Washington paradigm. This was doubly bad for Pennington, because it underscored the fact that he is from Washington, not New Orleans.

The tragedy of Pennington's campaign is that he started with so much good will, but finished on so many sour notes.

That was the second paradigm shift. Voters not only rejected the familiar faces and names. They also rejected the old, worn-out strategies of attack, slash and burn, then attack some more.

Nagin had numerous opportunities to answer Pennington's attacks in kind. Indeed, his top advisers begged him to go for the jugular. To his credit, he refused.

In the end, New Orleans voters did more than choose a new mayor. They embraced a new way of campaigning.

It's going to be an interesting four years.

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