In a few weeks, displaced, challenged and beleaguered New Orleanians will determine who will be their next mayor. Either the incumbent, Ray Nagin, or the challenger, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, will have four years to try to bring some degree of normalcy back to the Crescent City.
The Orleans Parish elections can have a great impact on what happens in the future in "The City that Care Forgot." But these elections will also begin to give some critical insights into how statewide races in Louisiana may be impacted for years to come.
Orleans Parish has been a treasure trove of Democratic votes for decades. When South Louisiana's Cajun country started voting more for Republicans over the years, New Orleans' precincts became even more critical to Democratic statewide candidates. Mary Landrieu won two closely contested U.S. Senate races by overcoming strong Republican challenges with massive vote differentials in New Orleans. Kathleen Blanco would have had a cliff-hanger of a race in 2003 had she not run up a large victory margin over Bobby Jindal in Orleans Parish. It has become obvious that Democratic candidates running statewide aren't guaranteed a win with a strong vote in New Orleans, but they are in dire jeopardy without one.
Even before Katrina struck, all was not well in the Democratic political stronghold. Charismatic political leaders, such as Edwin Edwards, Dutch Morial and Bill Clinton, could motivate the African-American vote in New Orleans to turn out in percentages close to the always high white-voter turnout. Coupled with well-organized black political organizations, the Democratic voter turnout machinery could make miracles happen at election time. But as the years went on, the loss of population in New Orleans, plus a decline in the clout and effectiveness of organizations such as BOLD, SOUL and COUP, led to white percentages of turnout much higher than that of blacks. Democrats still rolled up solid margins in New Orleans, but not in the numbers they had in the past.
In the recent primary, 31 percent of blacks who were registered voted, compared to 46 percent of the whites. Since blacks outnumbered whites two-to-one in voter registration, blacks were in a slight majority in the April 22 election. Much effort was undertaken to be sure that displaced voters could participate in that election if they chose to do so. But in future years, the voting will be restricted to actual residents of Orleans parish, not individuals who are still deciding whether or not they will return.
The big questions are: How many black Orleans voters will return? How many will not return to New Orleans, but will still be registered to vote somewhere in Louisiana? How many white voters from Orleans will be in the same categories? The congressional races later this year, and the legislative and statewide elections next year, will begin to tell how much of an advantage New Orleans will continue to hold for Democrats running statewide.
If, as some suspect, the Democratic power base in Orleans has been further diminished, the consequences can be immediate and widespread. Republicans, not Democrats, could end up with the advantage in statewide races. That may lead more candidates (especially those who often change philosophies) to run as Republicans rather than Democrats. More of this puzzle will come into focus during the balance of this year, but one thing is certain: The New Orleans elections will begin to answer questions much larger than whether it will be Ray Nagin or Mitch Landrieu serving as mayor for the next four years.