Had only one or two black candidates opposed Jefferson, it's extremely likely that the runoff picture today would look radically different. Contrary to what many expected (and some still believe), voters in the Second Congressional District Democratic primary did not cast their ballots strictly along racial lines on Oct. 4. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the white vote went to black candidates rather than to the sole white contender, former TV newscaster Helena Moreno. Among black voters, almost half supported incumbent Bill Jefferson, with a slim majority about 54 percent voting for his challengers.
Those observations are important because many voters in the district now view the Nov. 4 runoff through New Orleans' traditional racial prism: Jefferson is black; Moreno is white; the district's electorate is 62 percent black; therefore, Jefferson wins.
Indeed, if the vote breaks along racial lines, Moreno is toast. But, if she can convince at least 17 percent of the district's black voters to support her, she has a chance. Given Jefferson's 16-count federal indictment for bribery, racketeering and more, she feels she has standing to seek support in all corners of the district.
But first, she will have to break through that old racial prism.
Within days of the Oct. 4 primary, I started hearing a familiar refrain from local black politicos: Why should blacks support Moreno? Y'all put us in this spot because y'all all voted for her.
Let's do the math, because the numbers cannot be disputed:
Jefferson led the field with 25 percent of the overall vote.
Moreno finished second with just under 20 percent of the overall vote.
Of the voters who actually cast ballots in the Second District on Oct. 4, roughly 51.5 percent were African American and 48.5 were white or other. That's the conclusion of Greg Rigamer, a demographer who has tracked voter turnout for years. Post-Katrina population loss was greatest among the city's black voters, and it shows in the turnout figures. Black turnout will be higher on Nov. 4, however, with Sen. Barack Obama on the ballot for president.
Rigamer also examined returns from precincts that are overwhelmingly white or black to determine how much "crossover" votes Jefferson and Moreno got. He found that Jefferson got roughly 4 percent of the white vote, while Moreno got about 5 percent of the black vote. Knowing that Jefferson got 25 percent and Moreno got roughly 20 percent of the overall vote, that means Jefferson got 46 percent of the black vote while Moreno got only about 34 percent of the white vote.
That means well over 60 percent of the district's white voters supported one of Jefferson's African-American challengers.
So how did we end up with Moreno and Jefferson in the runoff?
Not because whites supported Moreno, but rather because so many credible black candidates five in all challenged Jefferson. In doing so, they split up the anti-Jefferson vote so much that Jefferson was able to run first, and Moreno second, even though neither frontrunner captured a majority of the black or white vote. Between them, Jefferson and Moreno got only 45 percent of the overall vote.
Had only one or two black candidates opposed Jefferson, it's extremely likely that the runoff picture today would look radically different.
Veteran political consultant Bill Rouselle reminded The Times-Picayune's Stephanie Grace that years ago local black political organizations would have gotten together to agree on one major challenger. I recall a time when New Orleans had a real leader for a black mayor, a guy named Dutch Morial. Had Dutch been in office this past July, you can bet he would have made sure that only one major black challenger rose to the occasion and he would have made sure that candidate had plenty of resources.
It's a different story today.
The bottom line for black politicos and black voters is this: If you want to vote against Moreno because she's white, just say so. But don't blame this runoff on white voters, because nearly two out of three white voters in that district tried to put a black candidate in the runoff against Dollar Bill. At the same time, nearly half the district's black voters opted to send him back to Washington.
The numbers don't lie.