New Orleans loves an underdog. Maybe it's because we also like the "horse race" aspect of a campaign. Whatever the reason, in all recent mayoral races with large fields and no incumbents, one or more candidates make a late charge and one or more of the early leaders tumble.
It happened again this year as state Sen. Paulette Irons, who was first or tied for first in all the early polls, fell like a rock in the final three weeks and businessman Ray Nagin charged from the back of the pack.
Much of Irons' political misfortune was her own fault, as her record failed to match her rhetoric. Voters tolerate a lot in the politicians, particularly in New Orleans, but hypocrisy remains one of the few political sins that people don't forgive easily.
Irons was hurt most of all by the distortions -- even outright lies -- about the circumstances surrounding her brother's death. Her Web site, her print media and her TV ads vaguely portrayed him as a victim of "the violence of our streets." That message resonated with voters. But in truth, Irons' brother was a hardened criminal who died in a shootout with cops while he was robbing a supermarket.
For all the hoopla about Irons allegedly violating the state dual office-holding law, the thing that caused voters to desert her in droves was the false-light portrayal of her brother. The sad thing is that Irons could have gotten just as much mileage by telling the truth. A family that loses a son or brother the way Irons' did is very much a victim. That could have been a powerful message. It would have been the truth -- and it might have made her our next mayor.
For reasons that I'm sure Irons and her supporters will second-guess for a long time, the decision was made to "spin" her brother's death into something it wasn't, and now she's paying a heavy price. Even if lightning strikes and Irons makes the runoff, she has lost the moral high ground that she staked out in September with her promise to "take the 'For Sale' sign off City Hall."
If there's a lesson in Irons' demise, it's a time-honored one: Don't run from the truth. It will catch you every time.
One thing Irons and her campaign absolutely nailed, however, was the mood of the electorate. This election is about changing the image of New Orleans as a political cesspool. Voters are starved for a mayor they can trust to run the city without constantly trying to reward his or her cronies. They're willing to try something -- or someone -- radically different.
Enter Ray Nagin.
Just as Irons began losing voters' confidence, Nagin began a meteoric rise in the polls. The plain-speaking vice president and general manager of Cox Communications had always made a good impression on voters who saw him in live debates and at forums. Few thought he could win, however.
His endorsement by The Times-Picayune and, shortly thereafter, by Gambit Weekly coincided with Irons' collapse and changed voters' perception of Nagin as an also-ran -- much as newspaper endorsements catapulted Buddy Roemer from last to first in the governor's race of 1987. Suddenly there was a buzz all over town about Nagin as reform-minded voters looked for another new face.
In the space of two weeks, Nagin went from last place to a tie for second with Irons -- and even alone in second place in one poll. The gratifying thing for Nagin and his early supporters is that they always believed a businessperson, if given half a chance by voters, would fare well. In fact, Nagin's initial pitch to business leaders was, in effect, "Hey, you've always griped that we needed a business person in the mayor's office. Here's your chance. Don't blow it."
The only other surprise in this race has been the unshakable bedrock of support for Police Chief Richard Pennington. With no money and no organized political backing, he started out first and stayed there.
Imagine that -- a mayor's race in which no elected official makes the runoff.
Ready for change?