Five years later, the aftershocks following Hurricane Katrina continue to be felt. While the city’s physical landscape has changed dramatically, so too have the halls of political power and the faces that occupy them. The story of race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans is a dramatic one that makes clear the incredibly stark impact that the storm has had on the city’s African-American political power base.
For one, the city elected its first white mayor earlier this past February, a day before the Saints’ historic Super Bowl victory. Mitch Landrieu’s victory marked the end to more than three decades of black leadership in the city — one that began in 1978 with the election of Dutch Morial. But, the back-story is one that certainly illustrates the complexities of race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans.
While race seemed to be a prevailing theme throughout the mayoral election season, ultimately, Mitch Landrieu was estimated to have received substantial support from black voters. The front-leading black candidate in the race, Edwin Murray, decided to drop out of the contest just weeks before the election, claiming a desire to avoid what had become a “racially divisive campaign.” But, Murray faced an uphill battle with fundraising, unsurprising given the challenges that his black support base faced in the wake of Katrina, and polling numbers showed Landrieu holding a sizeable margin against him.
Murray’s unexpected and sudden departure from the mayoral race evoked strong reaction among many black New Orleanians including the New Orleans Tribune, one of the city’s leading African-American magazines. In an editorial entitled “A Betrayal of the Black Community,” the paper scolded Murray for failing to recognize what their “forefathers struggled and died for during the Civil Rights Movement.” But the magazine, ultimately endorsed Jean George’s (another white candidate vying for the mayoral seat) further illustrating the very complicated role of race in city politics.
In an acceptance speech that evoked themes of unity, Landrieu vowed that “we’re all going together and we’re not leaving anyone behind.” And, in the first six months of his tenure, Landrieu has been credited for appointing black candidates to significant posts in the city’s administration. But, in a state that has had some of the highest levels of racially polarized voting among any in the country, it is questionable whether a viable black candidate could soon obtain the cross-racial support that would be necessary to regain the seat (only 14 percent of white voters statewide supported Obama’s 2008 presidential bid).
The story of New Orleans’ dramatically changing political landscape does not stop there. The city council, which had held a black majority since 1985, now holds a 5-2 majority in favor of whites. Two of the seven seats on the council are elected at-large and for decades, there had been an unwritten rule but shared commitment that one of those seats would be held by a white and the other by a black. It appeared that voters abandoned that rule with the recent election of Jacquelyn Clarkson, a white former councilwoman, who defeated Cynthia Willard-Lewis, a black councilwoman.
The state legislature has also seen turnover in a number of seats with a number of majority black districts now held by whites.
The next big political battle to unfold in New Orleans will begin this Saturday when voters are scheduled to go to the polls for an important Congressional primary election. New Orleans Congressional seat which had been long held by William Jefferson (the first black to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction) is now occupied by Anh “Joseph” Cao, a Vietnamese-American Republican. Cao, a relatively newcomer to politics with little name recognition, brought about one of the most surprising victories of the 2008 election season. But, his upset win was attributable to a number of factors that stem beyond race including Hurricane Gustav which forced a delay in the election calendar and pushed the general election to one month after the historic 2008 presidential election and Jefferson’s legal troubles. In what some would describe as immense voter fatigue, Cao managed to unseat Jefferson in a race that was marked by extremely low turnout. Some estimates suggest that as few as 26 percent of voters turned out in majority white precincts and as little as 12 percent of voters turned out in majority black precincts. The candidate who prevails in this Saturday’s primary will likely proceed to a runoff election later this fall and could face Cao in the general election in November. That contest will certainly provide a helpful metric of persisting levels of racially polarized voting in the city.
But, ultimately, any discussion or analysis of elections in post-Katrina New Orleans must take into account the challenges faced by displaced voters. And, those challenges and barriers are well documented. Many of the city’s residents who found themselves in states such as Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee continued to closely monitor elections but encountered difficulties ultimately casting their ballots. One lawsuit, Wallace v. Blanco, filed in the wake of Hurricane helped achieve modest but important changes to help ease the burdens on displaced voters, including satellite voting centers around the state and an extension on deadlines for requesting and receiving absentee ballots.
But, some of these changes were short-lived while many black New Orleanians continue to struggle to return home. Other voters were purged or faced the threat of being removed from the rolls. And, much more could have been done to ensure that those who wanted to participate were able to, including a more consolidated election calendar, out-of-state satellite voting centers and instant run-off voting to help prevent voters from having to request and return multiple absentee ballots.
Louisiana, along with the rest of the country, now stands on the heels of the upcoming redistricting cycle. While census data will not be released before the start of next year, a number of commentators have predicted that Louisiana is likely to see a significant reduction in its population and the loss of a Congressional seat. Although the numbers may prove otherwise, any population loss that has occurred is most certainly directly attributable to ongoing displacement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Thousands of New Orleanians, many of them African-American, continue to struggle to rebuild while others have been outpriced by surging rental values and the loss of affordable housing stock throughout the city. The Road Home Program, which was to help provided desperately needed assistance to homeowners, relied on a discriminatory formula to determine grant awards that proved largely inadequate for black homeowners. As a result of these collective challenges, the City of New Orleans has witnessed dramatic shifts in the political landscape over the last five years.
The fifth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the greatest tragedies to befall our nation. But, it is also an opportunity to refocus on some of the significant challenges that remain. No doubt, rebuilding and redevelopment must take priority but maintaining and preserving equal access to the political process also tops the list.