Saturday's runoffs no doubt will strike some as anti-climactic, but several of this week's showdowns will tell us just how dramatically the local and statewide political landscape has changed. Much is at stake. Consider the runoffs for attorney general, New Orleans City Council at-Large, and Senate District 5. Each contest has a unique dynamic, and their outcomes will speak volumes about some of the most significant forces in the city and state. Here's a closer look:
Attorney General " The Republican Party is on a roll with the election of Congressman Bobby Jindal as governor. The GOP also won four of the other six statewide offices (insurance, agriculture, treasurer and secretary of state). The Democrats held the lieutenant governor's office via Mitch Landrieu's re-election. That leaves the AG's office as the only statewide contest on the ballot this Saturday. In that race, Democratic District Attorney Buddy Caldwell of Tallulah faces Republican attorney Royal Alexander.
Jindal has thus far kept his promise not to get involved in any runoffs, so it's up to the party to carry Alexander, who has two major problems: He has been sued in Washington, D.C., for alleged sexual harassment in the workplace while he served as a top aide to Congressman Rodney Alexander (no relation), and The Times-Picayune published emails in which he tried to squeeze campaign contributions from folks who sought his help with federal regulators. While Jindal sits it out, other GOP leaders are rallying to Alexander's cause by trying to help him raise money and turn out conservative voters.
Caldwell's critics describe him as a good ol' boy, but that cuts both ways. He has been endorsed by the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association and by most of the state's DAs " including several prominent Republican DAs like Walter Reed of St. Tammany and Doug Moreau of Baton Rouge. That support should put Caldwell over the top, but a last-minute push for Alexander could turn this into a cliffhanger. If the Republican Party can carry a guy with as much baggage as Alexander into the AG's office, it will show just how much of a juggernaut the GOP has become.
New Orleans Council at-Large " This is another race about race. The emotions that carried Ray Nagin back into office don't run nearly as high for this one, however, and the personalities are different. Most important, the turnout on Oct. 20, according to demographer Greg Rigamer, actually saw a white voting majority in the city. That's a huge swing from the 2006 mayor's race, which still turned out a black majority.
In this contest, District E Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who is African American, faces former District C Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, who is white. The two describe themselves as friends, and going into the last week their campaigns were indeed cordial. But beneath the calm surface, both campaigns are working feverishly to turn out voters who look like their candidate.
There's much more than a council seat at stake. The winner will either maintain a two-decades-long black majority on the council or tip it back to a white majority. Moreover, since 1977, New Orleans voters have split the council's two at-large seats between a black and a white. Arnie Fielkow, who holds the other at-large seat, is white.
The outcome of this race, much more than the mayor's race, will reveal Hurricane Katrina's long-term political implications for New Orleans. It thus will have great significance for next year's election for New Orleans DA and, beyond that, the mayoral race of 2010.
Senate District 5 " When Eddie Jordan Jr. resigned as DA, it dealt a major blow to Congressman Bill Jefferson's political machine. This state Senate race pits Jefferson's daughter, state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, against Rep. Cheryl Gray, the daughter of the congressman's former law partner, James Gray. Cheryl Gray led in the primary.
This contest has more nuances and intrigue than a season of 24. For Congressman Jefferson, it couldn't possibly hit closer to home. If his daughter loses her bid for the seat that launched Big Daddy's career, it may well signal the beginning of the end of the Jefferson Machine.
On the other hand, if she wins, it likely will mean that there will be a Jefferson at the forefront of New Orleans politics for another generation.
Like I said, much is at stake.