Monday, February 1, 2010

Race for Nola Mayor: If You're Not First, You're Last

Somewhere in the bowels of the Saenger Theatre, there’s a large woman with a Viking helmet about to belt out a high note on the New Orleans race for mayor.

Mitch Landrieu, who holds what is officially the state’s second highest office, is on the precipice of winning Louisiana’s second most powerful office.

Blame on the Saints. Blame it on the Super Bowl. Blame it on Mardi Gras. Blame it on buyer’s remorse from the previous city election. Blame it on the fact that none of Landrieu’s opponents have convinced Orleans Parish voters that they’d do a better job.

It doesn’t matter.

Nobody has come close to running even with Landrieu in the polls. That includes the time before he announced he would not run and after he abruptly got in.

According to the latest poll numbers, Landrieu is within striking distance (mid-40s) of winning outright and as his candidacy continues to build momentum, the inevitability of his election could make perception a reality.

For a guy who’s hoping his third try is the charm, Landrieu has benefited from a number of breaks.

First, businesswoman Leslie Jacobs, after vowing to remain in the race even after Landrieu’s surprise entrance, dropped out. Jacobs, whose pre-paid media continued to air days after her withdrawal, was a major threat to Landrieu as she possessed the most potential to raid his liberal white political base.

Secondly, the departure of State Senator Ed Murray from the field was a major boost to the Landrieu effort. Though he polled poorly and was out of money at the start of the new year, Murray was considered the leading black candidate and many figured that the African-American legislator would face Landrieu in the runoff.

Murray was the lone black candidate that had demonstrated significant cross-demographic support. Many of Murray’s white supporters melded into the Landrieu camp shortly thereafter and the belief that Landrieu was unbeatable began to take hold.

Thirdly, there was the Christmas gift Georges delivered to Landrieu when the businessman made some ill-advised statements (or as he called them “jokes”) at a meeting of the Orleans Democratic Parish Executive Committee.

Why Georges bothered to make a pitch to meeting of a partisan body that would be hostile to a former Republican contributor was perplexing.

Why he decided to speak ill (or joke ill) of US Attorney Jim Letten, perhaps the most respected figure in the community not wearing a Saints jersey, was bizarre.

While Letten might not be popular with black voters as he is with white voters (one must assume Team Georges had polled this matter before a predominantly black political group), that Georges did not think word of his talk would get out (or be recorded and shared on the internet) is astounding.

Even Georges’s recent endorsement by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro won’t mitigate the damage did by calling for the removal of one of the few people in government in the 504 area code who enjoys the near full confidence of the public.

With Republican Rob Couhig’s low-profile paid media presence, Landrieu reaped the biggest benefit from Georges’s Letten smack-talk.

Business consultant Troy Henry, who is new to the ballot but no stranger to City Hall, immediately benefited when Murray bailed on the race as Henry became the leading black candidate overnight.

Unfortunately for Henry, he followed up this political jackpot with a bungling press conference that harkened to Richard Pennington’s infamous Lundi Gras media event.

The initial word was that Henry was dropping out. Then it was leaked that Henry was staying in the race and the press conference was being held to announce a major endorsement, presumably Murray’s.

But when he delivered nothing more than a screed about why news outlets shouldn’t assume the runoff for mayor would be between two white candidates (that possibility ended the second Murray withdrew), Henry lost credibility with the media (who can attack you or worse yet simply ignore you) while making the lieutenant governor more palatable for white conservatives generally distrustful of any candidate with the surname Landrieu.

Despite the debacle at his “coming out”, Henry remains the strongest black candidate in the field since fair-housing activist James Perry never recovered from his first media buy featuring people hurling bleeped-out profanities in an attempt to creatively make an argument to reject the “same-old, same-old”.

If Perry’s goal for the ad was to make his presence known, he succeeded. But then again streaking down Saint Charles Avenue would also draw attention with equal political benefits.

Though the final numbers won’t be pretty for Perry, he should be credited for doing more homework than most if not all of his rivals on city issues and for running an innovative campaign that embraced technology. Regrettably for Perry, New Orleans has never been accused of being a cutting-edge city and his tactics failed to gain traction with voters conditioned to the old way of city politics.

So where what of the numbers?

Historically, black voters have a higher level of participation in the mayoral runoff than they do the primary so voting strength should be close to dead-even on Super Bowl-eve.

If Landrieu is polling at 40% in the black community, then the lieutenant governor needs to draw only 60% of the white vote. Simple enough right?

Not really.

White conservatives that were resentful of his family’s brand of liberal city and federal politics sank Landrieu’s last mayoral run.

The key for Landrieu is to parochialize the election and not let his US Senator sister’s involvement in ObamaCare and the controversy that surrounded her blessing of it to alienate white voters.

After doing the political equivalent of roller-skating down a flight of steps, Georges has focused on one thing and one thing alone: stopping Landrieu from taking it in the first.

The Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat has had trouble creating an identity for himself, one day bragging about his role in the Harry Lee documentary and another palling with former State Representative Sherman Copelin.

And then there was his attempt at stand-up comedy before the Orleans DPEC that could have only gone worse had a frothing Michael Richards written his material.

The New Orleans Saints’ first appearance in the Super Bowl could be as much of a blessing for Georges as it has been a curse for Landrieu’s combined opposition. With the game being played the day after the mayoral primary, Georges has the resources and perhaps the time to reintroduce himself to the voters, quite a few whom won’t be casting a ballot until the runoff.

Having tripped over his own words throughout the primary, Georges could become a major threat to Landrieu in what will be a brand new election in a second round.

But Georges has one other problem: Couhig.

Defying the political realities of running as a Republican in a city that gave John McCain a whopping 19% for president and further tethered by his previous endorsement of Nagin four years ago, Couhig has developed a loyal following from his radio talk show stint on WRNO and his guest host spots on WWL.

While Couhig will have a tough time making a runoff, the former New Orleans Zephyrs owner is in a prime position to deny Georges second-place as the Republican’s candidacy is a repository for anti-Landrieu protest votes, thus isolating them from Georges and indirectly aiding Henry.

Perry and former judge Nadine Ramsey likely won’t bleed Henry as much as what Couhig alone will draw from Georges.

Henry could slip into a runoff caused by Georges’s negative media carpet-bombing on Landrieu and by consolidating anti-Landrieu black votes.

Henry won’t receive anywhere near the same level of white support that Nagin garnered in 2006 due in no small part to Henry’s own controversial press conference, though he might not need it.

If there is a runoff, expect Henry to base his candidacy on diminishing black representation in city government.

Since Hurricane Katrina, there has been a drastic shift in political demographics in New Orleans including a school board with only two blacks members out of seven positions, a white district attorney, a Vietnamese-American congressman and a city council that will be 5-2 white if Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson are re-elected to their at-large positions.

Right or wrong, the issue of race will resonate with many black voters in a runoff.

Mayor Nagin has not so subtly broadcast in public appearances and paid media that having a black mayor equals protecting “the franchise”, even though neither has anything to do with each other unless Lenader Perez was on the ballot.

But even the rosiest scenario for Henry is predicated upon Landrieu falling short of a majority. If Landrieu hits 50%+1, the only thing second place gets you is a byline in a future obituary.

To borrow a line from Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, if you don’t run first, you may as well be last.

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