Just in time for Mardi Gras, the voters of New Orleans unmasked some of the city's longstanding political masqueraders. They put two unconventional candidates for mayor into a runoff over four current office-holders, and they rejected blatant appeals to race in another contest.
The feeling all over town was that "the city won" the Feb. 2 primary. Ray Nagin and Richard Pennington no doubt will have their differences in the March 2 runoff, but voters consider both men to be fundamentally honest and determined to change things at City Hall.
Right now, either candidate could win the runoff. Once again, it all depends on turnout.
The runoff election in City Council District A (Uptown, Carrollton and Lakeview) promises to generate a large turnout in precincts that Nagin carried handily in the primary. There are no other runoffs anywhere else in town.
Nagin also picked up two major endorsements from fourth-place finisher Jim Singleton and new Councilman-at-Large Oliver Thomas. Singleton and Thomas are leaders in the Central City political organization BOLD. They will help Nagin increase his base among African-American voters. Pennington led the 15-candidate field in the primary among black voters.
Meanwhile, some Pennington supporters wasted no time playing the race card. The Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, which is dominated by allies of Mayor Marc Morial and Congressman Bill Jefferson (the committee chair works for Jefferson) placed a radio ad three days after the primary painting Nagin as a closet Republican. The ad, which aired only on black radio stations, said Nagin should change his name to "Ray Reagan" because he made a contribution to President George Bush's campaign.
The not-so-subtle subtext of the message was that Nagin is an Uncle Tom who supports conservative white candidates.
Pennington says he had nothing to do with the ad, but he defends its content as truthful.
Meanwhile, there are whispers all over town that Pennington supporters will try to brand Nagin as some sort of Islamic militant among white voters. That's going to be a tall order; Nagin is the only Roman Catholic in the mayor's race. In politics, however, truth is rarely an obstacle.
Except when the press does its job.
Maybe I'm naïve, but I get the sense that New Orleans voters sent a message on Feb. 2. They said they want change. Not just new window dressing, but fundamental change.
They didn't just discard all current office-holders in favor of two new faces for mayor. Black voters in particular rejected blatant race-based appeals in the coroner's race as well.
Here again, Bill Jefferson and Marc Morial have unclean hands. They endorsed Dr. Dwight McKenna, who is black, against longtime incumbent Dr. Frank Minyard, who is white. That, in itself, is no big deal. But the way they pushed McKenna is significant: they told black voters that the city needs a black coroner, not a white one. Period. Never mind that McKenna is a convicted felon who did time in the federal pen for tax evasion.
How did black voters respond to Jefferson's and Morial's race-baiting?
In some black precincts, Minyard got a higher percentage of the vote than his 56 percent total citywide. My spot check showed him getting at least a third of the black vote and often close to a majority in many African-American precincts.
If I were Morial or Jefferson, I'd feel spanked right now.
Jefferson in particular had better be careful. He's way out front for Pennington, and he can't wash his hands of the "Ray Reagan" ad. Jefferson has a long history of meddling in local politics, from the SUNO flap (which led to the chancellor's firing) to local assessor and legislative races -- and now the mayor's race.
It's his right, of course, to get involved. But when his involvement turns ugly -- and then doesn't work -- the congressman could find himself on the bubble later this year when his own hide is on the line.
Those winds of change that are blowing through City Hall could turn towards Washington very quickly.