Louisiana loves political dynasties, possibly because our history and culture are rooted in French and Spanish monarchies. The trappings of democracy notwithstanding, we tend to treat our elected officials like royalty, allowing them to pass on their "thrones" to descendants and to place favored friends in high and low public office.
In feudal times, the royals maintained their hold on power by raising armies. In modern-day New Orleans, the most powerful rulers oversee political armies that deliver votes on Election Day (the modern equivalent of warfare). The setting has changed, but the game remains pretty much the same.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and eventually even the most powerful dynasties come to an end. Often it's the result of an electoral upset that triggers a realignment of local or regional political poles.
Currently, the two most powerful political families in New Orleans face a different kind of threat -- federal prosecutors. Congressman William Jefferson and the administration of former Mayor Marc Morial are the subjects of separate federal grand jury investigations that already have shaken the foundations of those two epicenters of power.
In campaigns, each man could count on his "army" to fend off adversaries. Morial's LIFE organization and Jefferson's Progressive Democrats have dominated the political landscape for decades. But, in this latest engagement, the armies are of no use -- and they could well disperse if their leaders should fall.
Jefferson apparently is under the microscope of a federal grand jury in Arlington, VA. Several of Morial's close associates as well as his uncle have been indicted locally on federal corruption charges relating to various patronage contracts during the Marc Morial era.
Two weeks ago, FBI agents raided Jefferson's homes in New Orleans and Washington, his automobile, and the office of his campaign treasurer in a coordinated sweep that offered a lot more melodrama than plot development. We'll have to wait and see what this one is all about, but early indications (read: speculation) point to a probe of the congressman's possible use of his congressional clout to enhance his business dealings. Nobody is talking, and at this early stage Jefferson stands accused of nothing.
Morial, meanwhile, has seen his star tarnished as the far-reaching federal investigation into his administration has progressed. So far, Marc Morial remains untouched personally, but the investigation is far from over -- and the trials of his uncle and friends cannot be far off. To be fair, Morial's job as president of the National Urban League has pretty much taken him out of the game locally, although his political organization LIFE remains a potent force.
Against this backdrop, New Orleans is about to have a mayoral election -- one of Jefferson and Morial's favorite pastimes. Nearly four years ago, Jefferson was the major domo behind the unsuccessful campaign of former New Orleans Police Chief Richard Pennington. Morial remained officially neutral, but most of his pals backed Da Chief.
As Mayor Ray Nagin prepares to seek a second term, most politicos have been waiting to see what Jefferson and Morial were going to do. There's no love lost between Nagin and the city's traditional political establishment, although he and Jefferson appear to have reached a truce in recent years. Last week they co-chaired a trade mission to Brazil, and Nagin helped elect Jefferson's daughter, state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, to her state House seat two years ago.
Morial and Nagin remain cool toward one another; most of Morial's pals would love to see Nagin beat.
But, with the two biggest names in the game weakened by federal investigations, the biggest election in years could well unfold without them. That, along with the investigations, could well produce the kind of polar realignment that pushes those dynasties to the brink.
- Congressman William Jefferson and the administration of former Mayor Marc Morial are the subjects of separate federal grand jury investigations that have shaken the foundations of those two epicenters of power.