Race in the New Orleans Mayor's Race

Politically challenged New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a national TV audience that a victory by challenger Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu would be a step back to the past. Though Nagin is black and Landrieu is white, the mayor did not intend this as a deliberate racial slap at Landrieu. Blacks have held unbroken power at New Orleans City Hall for three decades. But then again, he didn't have to.

Ever since Katrina floodwaters sent thousands of poor New Orleans blacks fleeing in terror for their lives, Nagin has been on the national hot seat. The mayor was knocked for being unprepared, indecisive, and panicky; then for compounding the tragedy by fingerprinting Bush, FEMA, and state officials -- in short, everybody but himself -- for bungling the rescue and relief efforts. The sheen on Nagin's political star was peeling fast by the hour.

That was in September. And with a mayor's election only months away, thousands of black New Orleans voters scattered to the nation's four corners, white voters furious at him for political incompetence, and his embarrassing crack about remaking New Orleans into a chocolate city, Nagin was in trouble.

But Nagin's "chocolate city" crack was a subtle signal to black voters to rally behind him at City Hall. It worked. In the April primary, ninety percent of blacks voted for him, which was a gigantic bump up from the tepid black support he received four years earlier.

The city's business leaders, and a large percentage of white voters, regarded the former corporate communications exec, and political novice, as a safe, bland, business friendly guy that wouldn't overly play the race card and exclusively cater to black interests. They were right. The city's black poor grew more desperate and underserved. Meanwhile, City Hall patronage, appointments, and contracts still remained comfortably in the hands of casino corporate officials, and a handful of prosperous and well-connected black business and professionals.

It almost certainly would have stayed that way during this election. Nagin, as all New Orleans mayoral incumbents have for the past three decades, would have had a cakewalk back to City Hall, and would have gotten a big slice of the white vote along the way. But Katrina radically changed the political and racial equation.

Even if in a perverse twist of racial politics, black votes propel Nagin back into City Hall, Nagin's fortune and that of other black politicians is cloudy. In the past decade, blacks have lost mayorships in several major cities. The Congressional Black Caucus has been reduced to a bare political whisper in Congress, and in California -- the nation's biggest, and most politically important state -- the number of blacks in the state legislature has been cut nearly in half in the past decade.

Black politicians blame their political slide on voter apathy, alienation, inner city population drops, suburban integration, displacement by Latinos, and increasingly Asians. These factors have contributed to a fall-off in the number of black elected officials. But black politicians such as Nagin must also share much of the blame for their political crash-dive.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank, found that the frustration of many black voters (with black politicians) has soared so high that blacks have stayed away from the polls in droves in state and municipal elections. Many black politicians make little or no effort to inform and involve the black public on vital legislation and political actions that directly impact their communities. Their all-consuming obsession is to elect more black Democrats to office, and in making sure that those already in office stay there.

Many black politicians are accustomed to unchallenged and unquestioned power. They hoard what they view as their sacred right to propose laws and support public policy they deem important for blacks. Yet those laws and policies more often than not boost middle-class blacks and corporate special interests rather than poor and working-class blacks. The plunging number of black elected officials is a wake-up call that guilt-laced appeals for "black solidarity" and voter registration caravans are not going to make blacks dash to the polls to vote for politicians they feel have failed them.

Black politicians hold their fate in their hands. They must reconnect with the black poor, and craft an agenda that can motivate, inspire and renew their belief that black politicians can deliver the goods. That agenda must emphasize jobs, drug and crime prevention programs, and improved neighborhood schools. If Nagin wins, it will be because black voters bought his race-tinged pitch about not going back to the past. But they should also demand that Nagin not go back to that same past in which the city's black poor were shamelessly ignored.


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