NOLA 2014 Municipal Elections to Restore Black Majority on City Council and Possibly Reclaim the Mayor’s Office As Well
By Mtangulizi Sanyika, Ph.D.
Now that official filing has occurred, it is clear that for the first time since 2007, New Orleans will have a majority African-American City Council to represent the interest of its 60 percent majority Black population and the interest of those citizens bypassed by current city policies and programs. A fundamental question however is what does that mean for the conditions of thousands of impoverished struggling and vulnerable African Americans in the post-Katrina era. Is skin color alone sufficient as a predictor of the policy orientation of the elected official, or are values and worldview as significant if not more significant than race alone.
In order to address the explosion of poverty in the city, the increasing unaffordability of the city, the neglect of the devastated neighborhoods, the dramatic declines in Black wealth in the city, distributive and developmental policies are required, rather than growth policies that benefit existing centers of power and wealth at the expense of marginal citizens.
Regardless of the outcome in the council races and the mayor’s race, the Black community should convene its own strategy session to articulate its interests and initiate the lobbying process to hold ALL ELECTED OFFICIALS accountable to the will of the people.
A Majority Black City Council is Certain, But a New Policy Direction is Still Needed
A brief review of the council races illuminates the challenge and opportunity makes this conclusion clear.
With only African-American candidates qualifying in these races, Black victories are assured in Division 2 at-large race, and Districts B, D, and E for a total of 4 seats. It is quite possible that victory can be achieved in other races where viable and well-organized Black candidates are competing with White candidates, namely, the at-large Division 1 and the District C races. In the at-large Division 1 race, Eugene Green, a well-known Black community leader and businessperson, has an excellent chance of defeating Stacy Head for the seat she barely won two years ago. In District C, which has a 58 percent Black voting majority, five candidates are running. However, most observers see it as a race between former judge and mayoral candidate Nadine Ramsey and term-limited Councilwoman-at-Large Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson. Even District A, the city’s only largely White district, presents a slim possibility of a Black winner with businessman Jason Coleman, who could very well benefit if strong Black voter turn-out and support collides with Whites voters splitting among the White candidates, including the incumbent Susan Guidry and the race’s lone Republican, Drew Ward.
In the end, the next New Orleans City Council will have at least four Black members, possibly five. And though it might seem unimaginable, six or even all seven members of the next City Council could be Black. However, the question is not necessarily how many Black persons are serving, but whether there is a common agenda that unifies the candidates such that policies will be specifically enacted to benefit the most-needy sectors of the city. This author believes that without a community-based agenda, each “politician” will be left to his own devices, to the devices of money interests or other political forces that compromise their ability to respond to the needs of the Black community. All too often, we have witnessed irresponsible and non-responsive elected officials who place the interests of outside power and wealth ahead of the interests of those who elected them. New Orleanians should put an end to the politics of yesterday and seize this opportunity to re-configure the political culture so that the interests of the most vulnerable in the Black community take priority. Obviously, candidates must be responsive to all of the diverse groups in their constituency of all races cultures and nationalities. At the same time, they must target the needs of those who are most vulnerable.
This can only be accomplished if the citizens/voters are organized as an independent political-social movement to keep elected officials accountable to such an agenda Of course, a City Council cannot adopt many of the necessary policies absent a sympathetic and supportive Mayor in the executive branch.
The King-Bagneris Candidacies Could Open the Door to the Mayor’s Office
In the 2014 Mayor’s race, there has been a widely held assumption that the incumbent Mitch Landrieu will win the election and that it is fruitless to challenge him. According to reports, his war chest is about $1.6 million, and his survey numbers suggest a high public approval rating. Despite such findings, the Black community of the city and the neighborhoods devastated by Katrina continue to suffer disproportionately with little evidence to suggest that they are a priority for the present administration. No doubt there are some African Americans who have benefited from this Administration resembling how previous mayors have similarly advanced a select group of their patrons. Gain for some is not the problem; we applaud their advancement. However, it is the larger problem confronting African Americans that is of primary concern. Public appearances, press releases and symbolic gestures and appointments and even periodic projects are no substitute for policies and practices that address the woeful underdevelopment of Black people in New Orleans.
Despite the claims to growth and prosperity, recent Census data paints a different picture which is ignored by the corporate media of the city. While there is apparent growth in some sectors of the city and prosperity for some, there is inequality for others—a sort of modern day equivalent of “separate and unequal.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty has “skyrocketed” in New Orleans–29 percent for adults and 42 percent for children –rates that are statistically equivalent to what they were in 1999. In other words, post-Katrina Black New Orleans is as bad if not worse than pre-Katrina Black New Orleans. According to Dr. Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research cited in Education Talk New Orleans, October, 12, 2011 “Blacks are not sharing equally in the employment benefits of recovery dollars. Indeed, the city may be creating a new generation of chronically unemployed persons who were previously part of the low wage working poor.”
Dr. Hill goes on to say that “despite the billions in post-Katrina federal dollars for building schools, streets, bridges and homes, the “new” New Orleans poverty rate has actually increased back to the 1999 levels.” He concludes that “with all the triumphal rhetoric as a city rising from the dead, the Census Bureau data offers the harsh facts that some have risen, while others have fallen. We act at our own peril if we ignore these troubling developments; the problem of education and youth, crime and violence cannot be solved as long as local blacks are unfairly deprived of the economic results of recovery, jobs and contracts.”
Census data and Hill’s commentary provide the precise reason a challenge to the incumbent mayor is an appropriate and sound strategy for the Black community to pursue. During his 2010 race, the incumbent promised the city would move forward in unity. Yet, economic benefits for the vast majority of Black folk during this administration are hard to identify. No amount of posturing, preacher endorsements or selected projects can change the fact that Black folks’ condition in the city has deteriorated since Katrina, despite the cranes in the sky (many of which resulted from work that began under the Nagin administration).
The argument is not whether the incumbent has been a “good mayor” The argument is whether or not the most vulnerable segments of the Black community and the most devastated neighborhoods have made much progress during his watch. He may not be responsible for all of the problems; however the voters must determine whether he has done enough to ameliorate or eliminate the problems over the last four years. Perhaps a challenge is exactly what is needed to force the issue, to compel an open discussion of neighborhood and Black needs in the city. This is not an anti-growth position, but growth without development only benefits the existing economic and power elites and not the needy, left out locked out citizens. New Orleans today is richer and whiter than pre-Katrina and the incumbent has done little to reduce structural inequality and equalize economic benefits for all.
It is probably the case that this administration is perceived as efficient and effective for some citizens’ interests, particularly, those with higher incomes and more education. Others suggest that his effectiveness has been at the expense of those with less income, education, and wealth, those in poverty, those who have been traditionally left out, and the most devastated neighborhoods. Anecdotal reports suggest that as much as many African Americans are really dissatisfied with the mayor’s policies, his style or his lack of attention to Black economic progress. A recent UNO survey reported that 60 percent of Asians in the city are dissatisfied with his performance and that even his White support base may be declining. Furthermore, the administration’s poor handling of the NOPD consent decree, NOPD behavior, the high cost of living in the city, a top-heavy administration, and the perceived “arrogance” of power suggest why many citizens are supporting a challenge in the mayoral election.
The response to the incumbent’s contradictions has resulted in two challengers: Attorney Danatus King, president of the local branch of the NAACP, and former Judge Michael Bagneris. Some argue that with the incumbent allegedly enjoying high approval ratings among African-American residents, a challenge is futile and that multiple Black candidates in the race will insure his re-election by splitting the Black vote. I contend the opposite. Despite a war chest and high ratings, it is not certain that voters are satisfied with the incumbent. Random conversations with citizens often uncover a hidden dislike and uneasiness about the incumbent not always detected by surveys and polls. Translating that uneasiness into votes is the challenge for candidates.
King, a well-known community leader is to be commended for the courage to challenge the incumbent despite the naysayers and the presumed odds against him. He has based his candidacy on the economic conditions of Black folks and the devastated neighborhoods. In the opinion of many activists, scholars and researchers, these two issues will determine the future of the city, and represent the Achilles heel of the incumbent’s re-election bid—a challenge form his left. On the other hand, long-time Judge Michael Bagneris who entered the race late challenges the incumbent from his center and enjoys a more traditional base among the Black middle classes with some White support—both strategically important parts of the incumbent’s past coalition.
Political scientists contend that when a White candidate enjoys substantial Black support, the only strategy to defeat such a candidacy is to capture as many of those Black supporters and move them to another candidate. That is exactly the scenario that can take shape here. Bagneris has a constituency that is more traditional, whereas King has a constituency that is more activist. It appears that the incumbent has a base reminiscent of the first-term Nagin coalition—an overwhelming majority of the white voters coupled with at least 30 percent to 40 percent of the Black vote. Thus, the only way to stop a primary victory is to split the incumbent’s African-American base and re-direct it between King and Bagneris. Some might argue that this is racialized and polarizing politics. Quite the opposite is the case. It’s about the politics of self-interest. The interests of the Black community have been relegated to second-class status by this administration. The King-Bagneris challenges could represent an electoral strategy to force the issues into the public sphere where new solutions can be proposed as public policy to correct the incumbent’s gross neglect and oversight.
It’s really up to the voters on Election Day to make their decision. Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Do you believe that the prospects for the Lower 9th Ward, the 7th Ward, the 8th Ward, Gentilly, or the East can be improved by maintaining the status quo? Or is a change in order? If the Black community desires a change, it can choose among the two viable and highly-qualified African-American candidates and force the issues.
THAT’S REALLY WHAT’S AT STAKE. YOU MAKE THE CALL!
Mtangulizi Sanyika, Ph.D., is a retired from the faculties of Dillard University (African world Studies/Black New Orleans/Global Issues) and Texas Southern University (Political Science). He is also the Project Manager Emeritus of the African American Leadership Project (AALP).