And Black New Orleanians are Turning the Screws:
A Look at How Apathy, Complacency and Distraction won the 2014 Mayor’s Race
by Lovell Beaulieu
Still early into his first term and at the height of the 2011 Mardi Gras season, Mitchell John Landrieu walked along a stretch of St. Charles Avenue toward Napoleon Avenue accompanied by his body guard to board the Smoky Mary float in the Krewe of Orpheus parade on the Monday night before Mardi Gras.
The Smoky Mary, Orpheus’ premiere float, is a mock-up of a rolling train featuring music, illuminated decks and masked riders. Like others before him, Landrieu, an admitted Mardi Gras junkie, was clearly enjoying the moment. Landrieu always smiles for the cameras as the courts of Rex and Comus meet for their annual toast, the culmination of yet another successful year of keeping the natives in check.
During the 2010 election season, the Saints were in the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras in full swing. This time, the Saints were home watching. This year, it appears that Landrieu continued to reap the benefits of an electorate that was too distracted, too indifferent or far too satisfied with whatever their situation might be. The mayor was re-elected to a second term on Saturday, Feb. 1 by a wide margin over former Judge Michael Bagneris and NAACP President Danatus King. Landrieu garnered almost half of the Black vote while Bagneris and King, combined, could only capture 10 percent of the White vote. And while mainstream media is all too happy to reference the large number of Black voters willing to cross racial lines at the polls, they often neglect to mention statistics on the the other side of the mirror—White voters that rarely cross racial lines. The local thrice-weekly and daily papers chose not to mention it.
Media pundits harped on the African-American cross-over vote for Landrieu, but they summarily fail to acknowledge the overwhelming number of White voters who chose to remain in the crosswalk. They don’t pull the lever for the African-American candidate, regardless of the opposition or the qualifications.
If Voting Were a Parade
In many ways, the Napoleon Avenue scene during a typical Mardi Gras season has become the political microcosm of a huge voter registration drive, but without the voters. There is always a massive turnout at a parade or a second line but never an equal showing for an election even as they hold a nearly 60,000 voter majority in an overwhelmingly African-American city.
Where Atlanta decides ahead of time that its majority Black city will be managed by a qualified, well-prepared African-American leader, Black New Orleanians seem determined to relinquish all opportunities for political, legal and economic equity to a cohesive White community that seems just as determined to never again lose political and economic power to African-Americans, or even to share it. Maybe they (Black voters) do it all out of a perverted sense of self-loathing. Maybe they do it out of conditioning. Maybe they do it out of a fear of repercussions.
Regardless of why they do it, they do it, seemingly with glee not seen since Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen character in “Django Unchained”. The difference here is that it is the voters who are chained.
In the end, they seem to prefer turning out for plastic trinkets as opposed to operating in the political trenches.
An Inconvenient Truth
Gino Gates, a New Orleans attorney, political consultant and campaign manager, was emphatic in his take on why so few African-American voters went to the poll on a Feb. 1, when there was no football game and the wintry weather had dissipated, at least for that day.
While Bagneris and King both ran campaigns with either little time or little funding, Gates believes neither gave African-Americans – primarily the ones who didn’t vote at all – a compelling argument for making Landrieu a one-term mayor, compared to Landrieu who, despite not getting the support of the city’s major African-American political establishment, still managed to win handily.
“If Michael Bagneris had defined the problems of a struggling post-Katrina, indigenous population, I think that would have really made a difference,” asserts Gates, who was heading up State Sen. Edwin Murray’s 2010 mayoral campaign before he dropped out of the race, (leaving the path to City Hall wide open for Landrieu).
A True Dose of Mitch
Thirty days may not have been enough time to convince voters why Mitch Landrieu has not served New Orleans well, but 48 months tell a more complete story. Consider:
• The Lower Ninth Ward, ground zero for the failure of government at all levels and the area that suffered the worst in loss of life, property and population, remains a vast urban wasteland that has been ignored by the Landrieu administration. The only ones who paid attention were the tour bus companies, who became the post-Katrina parasites capitalizing on the languishing recovery efforts.
• Despite promises and only partial funding, New Orleans East still doesn’t have a full-service hospital.
• An ongoing assault on Sheriff Marlin Gusman over the Orleans Parish jail operation. Gusman’s opposition in the run-off is a former sheriff, Charles Foti—who is reported to be a Landrieu relative and whose 30 years as sheriff makes him the person most responsible for the condition of the jail.
• An even more unrelenting assault on the city’s Civil Service system, which protects city workers from the kind of vindictive governing that some say has become the hallmark of Landrieu.
• A chronic homicide rate. This is something Landrieu has played like a fiddle. He knows what buttons to push to appease White voters while fostering discord in the Black community. He speaks of knowing the names of every homicide victim while calling them “thugs” in the next breath. He harps on “a culture of death” but has never used the terms cultures of racism, cultures of oppression, cultures of privilege and cultures of entitlement. Landrieu has used the term “thug” repeatedly to define criminal behavior but rarely addressed the social and economic maladies that spawned the criminal behavior. Moreover, the mayor, through his silence, became complicit in the Ronal Serpas led police department’s involvement in the questionable deaths of several African-American males.
• Landrieu shut the door in the face of NAACP President Danatus King at Gallier Hall in the early days of his administration, but never suffered political damage for his snuff of King and others. King was there to be a part of the mayor’s crime summit, attended by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr., then U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, selected Black ministers and a cabal of individuals, Black and White, doing Landrieu’s bidding.
• A hijacked public school system led by Sen. Landrieu recruit Paul Vallas, former state Supt. Paul Pastorek, current state Supt. John White and Leslie Jacobs, a Landrieu confidant who has led the charter school rebellion in New Orleans by pushing the candidacies of people such as Kira Orange Jones, the Teach for America ethically-challenged BESE member whose own judgment has raised eyebrows in numerous circles.
• Economic disparity, where African-Americans continue to be shut out of the local job market, especially when it comes to all of the medical and technology-based jobs coming into the city.
• Gentrification, where mostly White, privileged out-of-towners come in and seek to change the cultural fabric of a community by forcing out those who already live here. They do it seamlessly, with little subtleties. While those newcomers get taxpayer-funded bike lanes and well-paying jobs, the people they found here can’t get a streetlight repaired or a pothole filled or a job interview.
His Way or the Highway
In his first few months in office, Landrieu launched a take-no-prisoner approach in attacking Black leadership, both economic and social. One of his most highlighted disputes, the one where he enjoyed the editorial support of the city’s then-seven days a week newspaper, was the assault on the sanitation contracts of Jimmy Woods and Metro Disposal and Alvin Richards of Richards Disposal.
The White business and civic communities, primarily Forward New Orleans, the Business Council of New Orleans and the Bureau of Governmental Research, each verified as engaged insiders of the shadow government, were unilaterally opposed to the contracts awarded to the African-American businessmen, despite both doing a good job and actually saving the city money. By most accounts, those so-called civic and business entities, have opposed all measures aimed at making life in New Orleans more equitable, more fair and less racialized.
“Black folks in New Orleans are in a vice now,” Gates says. “They’re being squeezed.”
When Landrieu first took office, many of the difficulties Blacks in the city were facing were already in play having been set in motion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The school system had been dismantled. The state’s Road Home debacle made returning to New Orleans especially difficult for some African-American residents not adequate settlements to return and rebuild. These were the issues, the needs, Landrieu should have focused on when he first came into City Hall.
“Black people were on their knees, and the state put their knees on us,” Gates argues.
And the vise appears to be tightening. Though Landrieu came into office to find these problems, as mayor he did nothing to rectify them.
“He did not recognize the disparity,” Gates says about the misery index African-Americans face on a daily basis in New Orleans. “Your silence is complicit. These were issues of a majority population and no attempt to remedy the disparity.”
Louella Givens, a former member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a strong supporter of quality education without the so-called reforms now taking place, has a pretty good reason why African-Americans who bothered to vote voted the way they did, and why many didn’t vote at all. As a result, Givens is equally harsh in her assessment of the recent mayor’s race as well as the future of the African-American community in New Orleans.
“Michael may be a brilliant jurist but nobody knows. (Judges) get elected for six and eight year terms, nobody knows about them,” Givens says.
Givens maintains that “we’ve had difficulty getting the East back up and running, the timing of the hospital opening, the lack of major economic activity” are just a few of the big-ticket items that African-Americans continue to be shortchanged on.
Landrieu, for his part, had enjoyed the benevolence of a local media that rarely challenges him (hardly any eyebrows raised when he appointed his sister-in-law as the city’s head of economic development, an act for which a Black mayor likely would have been excoriated, with words such as “patronage” and “corruption” quickly used to describe his behavior.
Givens says this election may appear great for some but in the long run will carry enormous implications with deep-rooted ramifications for the African-American community.
“I think that Black people think it might be bad, (but) we’re going to survive four years. They don’t see a threat to the Black economy. It’s the worst kind of threat, the worse kind because they don’t know. “
It all has long-term implications, Givens maintains.
“We always knew we were at risk. But we have a generation of Black people who don’t know that Black males are endangered, that Black children will be more illiterate than they are today. I’ll say this. The schools will continue to decay, unless we take a really serious long look at the test scores. After 15 years of reform, we’re 49th. That means New Orleans is at the bottom of that barrel. Our children are not being prepared to participate in that biomedical corridor. People don’t see a problem, they don’t see enough problems to make a change,” Givens says. “We just didn’t have enough time to say it. There was no fear of imminent danger, no threat. It’s was as if the people were saying ‘We’re making it. What are y’all talking about?’ “
Paul Beaulieu, the host of Showtime in the Afternoon and general manager of WBOK 1230 AM, has maintained for more than five years that “the train was coming.” The “train” turned out to be both Landrieu’s Lundi Gras night ride and the iron-clad behemoths of Black voter apathy coalescing with media bias, white resistance and white fears.
The difference this time, African-Americans were just as complicit in their own electoral execution.
Lovell Beaulieu is a journalist.