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The Fog of New Orleans Mayoral Race History

New Orleans politics is always interesting and entertaining, even when it’s appalling.

The conventional wisdom after Donald Trump’s stunning electoral college win is that all elections are a blank slate. One is advised to throw history out the window along with the proverbial baby’s bathwater. Splash.

Here’s the problem with that: some of the same people who thought Trump could not win are the ones proposing a new pundit paradigm. History may not always repeat, but it does from time to time. My inclination is to use past electoral results to inform our thinking about current elections. That’s my goal in this column, though this analysis could end up joining the bathwater on the banquette.

There have been four open mayoral elections since African Americans have constituted the majority of Orleans Parish registered voters: 1986, 1994, 2002, and 2010. 2010 is the outlier on that list: Mitch Landrieu was a mayor in waiting; once he entered the race, it was over. So, we’ll throw that one out the window.

Let’s take a gander at 1986, 1994, and 2002 separately and see if we can draw any conclusions. In my case it will have to be stick figures; my artistic skills are rudimentary at best. I guess that makes me an outsider artist, or, on a good day, an abstract expressionist.

1986: There were three major candidates in this race: then City Councilman Sidney Barthelemy (a.k.a. Sidney), State Senator Bill Jefferson (a.k.a. Dollar Bill) and former State Representative Sam LeBlanc, who was the only major candidate who was white. All were Democrats. This is a blue city. (Since 1996, every Democratic presidential candidate has received more than 75% of the Orleans Parish vote in the general election.)

In the primary, Jefferson came in first with 38.6%, followed by Barthelemy at 33.4% and LeBlanc at 25.2%. It is obvious that LeBlanc’s support went to Sidney even though LeBlanc had served in outgoing Mayor Ernest (Dutch) Morial’s administration. Here’s how I know that. In the run-off, it was Sidney with 58% and Dollar Bill with 42%.

This breakdown has always interested me, as Barthelemy spent Dutch Morial’s second term at war with the mayor and Jefferson was endorsed by Morial. The reason was—you guessed it—race, and to a lesser extent religion. White voters were more comfortable with Sidney because he was a light-skinned Catholic Creole in a deeply Catholic town. Dollar Bill was a dark-skinned Protestant originally from East Carroll Parish in northeast Louisiana, and white voters were down on Dutch Morial at the end of his second term. In those days, what could be called the brown paper bag test dynamic was decisive in this and other races.

I’m not sure how analogous the current race is to 1986. Desiree Charbonnet is Creole, but those loyalties seem less salient in 2017. It certainly won’t hurt her chances, but it’s not as important as the family funeral home business, which has buried generations of New Orleanians. I suspect that neither Cantrell nor Bagneris will take that lying down. Pun intended. It always is.

A quick footnote: Jefferson went on to represent New Orleans in Congress for 18 years. He was convicted on corruption charges and is currently in prison. He was nicknamed Dollar Bill by Dutch Morial because he was an avaricious young man. That came back to haunt him, as did the money found in his freezer. Talk about cold hard cash leading to cold hard time.

1994: This campaign could be called the battle of the sons, as Marc Morial squared off with Mitch Landrieu, among others. It was also the second to last mayoral election in which the alphabet groups played an important role. These were African American political organizations rooted in the civil rights movement. By the 1990s, the alphabet groups were devoted to electoral politics.

Marc Morial was the choice of the family organization, LIFE.  State House Speaker Pro Tempore Sherman Copelin, who was almost as greedy as Dollar Bill, was endorsed by his own group, SOUL. First District assessor Ken Carter (father of Karen Carter Peterson) waved the BOLD banner. And City Councilman and Barthelemy ally Lambert Bossiere was the candidate of the 7th ward group, COUP. You can see why they were nicknamed the alphabet groups. The clout of these groups was dramatically diminished after Hurricane Katrina. LIFE and BOLD still linger, but you don’t hear much about SOUL or COUP any more.

Now that your heads are dancing with images of alphabet soup, none of these candidates finished first. Businessman and Dutch Morial poker pal Donald Mintz finished first in the primary. Mintz challenged Barthelemy in 1990 and did quite well, with 44% of the vote. The question that lingered over the ’94 campaign was, “could a white candidate win?” We’ll get to that after a quick primary rundown: Mintz 37%; Morial 32%; Landrieu 10%; Copelin 8%; Carter 7%; Bossiere 4%.

As you can see, name recognition trumped everything in the ’94 primary, and the two well-known white candidates received a combined 47% of the vote. The answer to the question of whether a white candidate could win was a resounding no, as Morial received 54% to Mintz’s 46%. The answer remained no in NOLA until 2010, when Mitch Landrieu was elected to clean up the mess made by C. Ray Nagin’s corrupt and inept administration.

It was a dirty campaign, with accusations that the Jewish liberal Mintz was a racist. He was not, but had to waste precious time combatting anonymous smear fliers and scurrilous allegations. The ’94 campaign was entertaining, but it was a lousy civics lesson.

I don’t think there’s much to learn in 2017 from 1994. None of the current candidates has the name recognition of even the unsuccessful candidates. I guess Michael Bagneris is this year’s Donald Mintz, but Bagneris’ share of the 2014 vote was strictly a protest vote, and it was only 33% at that.

2002: I do, however, think there are some lessons to be gleaned from the 2002 race, in which the seemingly out-of-nowhere candidate, non-politician, businessman C. Ray Nagin, ended up winning the election. Sound familiar? The Nagin administration was about as competent as the current administration in Washington. And Nagin was wont to say odd things such as the “exploding economic pie” he once offered voters.  One difference is that C. Ray is in jail and Donald Trump is at large and tweeting. That exploding pie clearly blew up in C. Ray’s face.

There were two frontrunners at the start of the 2002 campaign: State Sen. Paulette Irons and Marc Morial’s respected police chief, Richard Pennington. Irons’ well-financed bid to be the city’s first female mayor fell apart because of a somewhat casual acquaintance with the truth, as pointed out by the Gambit‘s Allen Johnson in a piece entitled “The Perils of Paulette.” Irons was also the subject of an intense opposition campaign. As to the late Chief Pennington, he was a great cop, a nice man, and a terrible politician. His biggest mistake was allowing Dollar Bill Jefferson’s organization to run his campaign. White voters still took a dim view of the Congressman in 2002, and with good reason. His friends and relations spent the aughties looting the school board. Dollar Bill’s finger in the Pennington pie meant that the man who should have been the perfect racial cross-over candidate was viewed with suspicion by white conservatives and goo-goo reformer types alike. It didn’t matter that he’d reduced crime dramatically and cleaned up a corrupt department. Palling around with Dollar Bill killed his chances.

In the primary, Nagin came in first with 29%, followed by Pennington at 23%, Irons with 13%, and Council President/Alphabet group guy Jim Singleton at 13%.

In the run-off, Nagin walloped Pennington, 59-41. Nagin was the crossover king in that race. He went on to become one of the worst mayors in New Orleans history as well as the first to be imprisoned. In 2002, we gained a horrible, albeit unintentionally funny, mayor and lost an outstanding police chief. So it goes.

The applicable lesson for 2017 is that anything can happen when the candidates aren’t widely known citywide. That’s the case with the three ostensible frontrunners: Latoya Cantrell, Michael Bagneris, and Desiree Charbonnet. Troy Henry was runner-up to Mitch Landrieu in 2010 but lost in the primary by 50 points. It’s a performance that is best forgotten.

New Orleans politics is always interesting and entertaining, even when it’s appalling.

One of my tasks at the Bayou Brief will be to analyze, and occasionally mock, the candidates as the process unfolds. Did I just say occasionally? Who am I kidding? They deserve mockery, especially minor candidate Frank Scurlock, who promises a crime blimp and anti-crime patrols of the French Quarter by the National Park Service. The rangers give tours, dude.

Stay tuned. This should be interesting.

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