While no one can say with certainty who New Orleans’ next mayor will be, history offers some insights worth noting. For example, we tend to elect young mayors when there’s no incumbent running. That’s not a rule, just a tendency. We also “tend” to elect men, but this time two of the leading candidates are women.
One electoral tendency that I’ve noticed dates back almost a century. I call it The Pendulum Effect. When New Orleans voters choose a new mayor, they invariably pick someone unlike the mayor who’s leaving office — even if that mayor is relatively popular. That tendency is not limited to our mayoral contests; it’s been true in recent gubernatorial and presidential election cycles as well.
However, while national and statewide electoral outcomes tend to swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, New Orleans voters are overwhelmingly registered Democrats. For that reason and others, our mayoral pendulum swings along a different axis almost every time. Sometimes it pivots along racial lines, sometimes along lines of personality, political style or range of experience.
A look back at the last 50 years illustrates my point. Moon Landrieu, father of the current mayor, was thought by many to be New Orleans’ last white mayor when Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial became our first African-American mayor. Both men had strong personas and were steeped in the nuances of city politics.
The pendulum then rotated from a racial axis to one of political style. The sometimes feisty Dutch Morial was followed by Sidney Barthelemy, whose laid-back persona contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor. Barthelemy, in turn, was succeeded by Marc Morial, son of Dutch, who brought back a high level of energy while maintaining a high level of affability as well.
After Marc Morial, the pendulum rotated again, from political style to resume: Ray Nagin ran and won as a nonpolitician, an outsider with no ties to the city’s political establishment. After Hurricane Katrina and a recovery that was “stuck on stuck,” voters yearned for someone who knew how to be mayor — giving us another pendulum swing, another politician, another Landrieu.
Voters no doubt will offer lots of reasons for choosing whoever becomes New Orleans’ next mayor. Certainly the issues of crime, blight, economic disparities and streets will resonate to varying degrees across the city’s 17 wards. But, at the end of the day, I think it’s safe to say voters will choose someone who, in ways that we might not foresee at present, stands in stark contrast to Mitch Landrieu.
The question is not whether the pendulum will swing or rotate again but rather along what axis — race, age, gender, style or some other attribute? Quite possibly, it could be a combination of several of them.
We may have an inkling when qualifying closes on Friday, July 14, but chances are it will take the rough and tumble of the campaign to show us how the candidates differ not only from one another, but also from the term-limited incumbent.