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Primary Lessons



The Oct. 5 primary contained a few surprises, but mostly it reaffirmed some time-honored political lessons -- particularly the importance of turnout and the necessity of bi-racial support.

The Nov. 5 runoff for district attorney, which coincides with the federal primaries for Congress and the U.S. Senate, will turn largely on turnout, which seems more unpredictable than ever.

Turnout on Oct. 5 in New Orleans was a mere 26.4 percent, which is embarrassing in an open race for district attorney. No doubt two hurricanes in the last 11 days of the campaign had some adverse impact, but the larger influence may have been voter indifference. No candidate in the DA's race captured voters' imaginations or stirred them to action, despite some horrific crimes in the last days of the campaign.

As is often the case, white turnout was substantially higher than black turnout in the primary, but the difference did not significantly affect the results in most races.

Consider first Criminal Court Judge Leon Cannizzaro's victory in the Court of Appeal race over First City Court Judge Sonja Spears. Cannizzaro is white; Spears is black. Cannizzaro got a huge white vote, but that solid support couldn't have made the difference by itself. Equally crucial to Cannizzaro's victory was his significant support (probably one third overall) among African-American voters. In some black precincts, he garnered nearly half the vote. Meanwhile, Spears' white vote was meager. Without substantial "cross-over" support from black voters, Cannizzaro could not have won.

Now look at the race for judge of Civil District Court between former City Attorney Mavis Early, who is white, and veteran attorney Herbert Cade, who is black. Cade won by a narrow margin of 51-49 percent, or just 1,500 votes. Early got a respectable black vote, as high as 40 percent in a few precincts, but mostly in the mid-to-high 20 percent range. But Cade got his share of white votes as well. In this race, both candidates clearly worked hard to get votes in all parts of town. The numbers favored Cade from the start, but he still had to get a substantial white vote to win the election.

Nowhere was that lesson more glaring than in the DA's race, where the only major white candidate, Franz Zibilich, failed to garner any appreciable levels of black support against four major black candidates. Zibilich didn't even get a majority of the white vote citywide, although he led the field in all the white precincts I checked. James Gray and Dale Atkins were virtually tied for second among white voters, with Eddie Jordan running fourth in most white precincts.

Jordan ran very well in most black precincts, however, which gave him his significant lead overall. He led the field with almost 34.8 percent of the total vote, followed by Atkins, who finished with 23.9 percent.

The biggest surprise in the DA's race was Morris Reed's dismal showing. He garnered less than 4 percent of the vote, despite spending several hundred thousand dollars on some fine TV ads. In the three previous DA elections, Reed nearly beat incumbent Harry Connick, whose announced retirement triggered this year's wide-open race. This time, Reed barely beat marginal candidate Gary Wainwright, a defense lawyer who advocates lesser penalties for minor drug possession cases. Had Reed done better, he likely would have drawn votes from Jordan. Instead, Reed appears finished, and Jordan got an early boost.

Looking ahead to the runoff, Jordan will need to increase his white vote, which averaged between 10 percent and 15 percent in the primary. Atkins will have to build on the bi-racial coalition that got her into the runoff.

Both candidates will work hard to secure the endorsements of Gray, Zibilich, Mayor Ray Nagin and The Times-Picayune. Nagin and the T-P backed Gray in the primary.

Meanwhile, a lot of folks had assumed from the start that Nov. 5 would see a huge black voter turnout as a result of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's bid for re-election. No doubt she'll spend a ton to turn out loyal Democrats that day, but the Oct. 5 turnout numbers don't give her any cause for overconfidence.

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