Distractions, Dysfunction, Racism Apathy and Their Impact on the Governor’s Race

By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune

How, in 2023, do voters in a U.S. state, presumably filled with sentient beings, elect as their next governor a man who, if he is not a white supremacist, pulls off an entirely-too-close-for-comfort impersonation of one? 

With the endorsement of the state party and the support of the current Democratic governor, Democrat Shawn Wilson was expected to at least make Jeff Landry fight for the seat by garnering enough support to keep the simple majority threshold just out reach, sending the battle into a runoff on Nov. 18.

Instead Landry is Louisiana’s next governor – no runoff needed. 

The right-wing attorney general who supported legislation that discriminated against juveniles offenders in New Orleans, Shreveport and Baton Rouge (three largely Black urban areas) . . . a man who worked to withhold nearly $40 million bond financing for much-needed infrastructure projects in New Orleans over local elected officials’ stance against the state’s abortion ban . . . the candidate who snubbed an invitation to participate in the state’s first televised debate because one of its sponsors was the Urban League, which, to him meant, the audience would be filled with Black people who would be hostile towards, him won easily.

What does that say about Louisiana?

The numbers tell a story, and apathy and low turnout cannot be discounted. Still, there is plenty of blame to share. 

Many have pointed to an utter failure of the state and national Democratic parties to put more money and might behind the Wilson campaign. If the state and national Democratic parties actually wanted to hold on to the governor’s mansion in Louisiana, they have a funny way of showing it.

Then there is the role that racism played in this gubernatorial cycle, along with diversionary political tricks that can be counted as culprits responsible for Landry’s win. 

Let’s talk about it.

The numbers tell a story, and apathy and low turnout cannot be discounted. But don’t fret, there is plenty of blame to share.

Voter Apathy and Low Turnout

We have to talk about apathy and the distractions that plagued this election. We have seen viable Black Democratic candidates in statewide races in Louisiana at least make it to a runoff. Cleo Fields did it 1995. Gwen Collins-Greenup did in the 2019 Secretary of State race and again this year. And in 2023, there is no reason that Shawn Wilson, who was more than qualified for the job, should not have done so. 

So we need to talk about apathy because the numbers don’t lie.  

Voter turnout took a dive in the 2023 primary across the board and across the state when compared to numbers posted just four years earlier.

While turnout among Republicans dipped from 55 percent in 2019 to 47 percent in 2023, Landry could still rely on steadfast support from his base. But Black Democrats in statewide races don’t have a base in Louisiana. That means Black voters and true Democrats could not afford to mess around if Shawn Wilson were to have a chance. Yet, that’s exactly what they did. 

In 2019 in New Orleans, Edwards captured 86,286 votes in the primary, but Wilson only got 50,352 votes this year—a difference of 35,934 votes, according to the unofficial results from the recent primary.

There was a similar showing in East Baton Rouge, where in 2019’s primary, John Bel Edwards got 84,287 to Rispone’s 36,409. Wilson also won East Baton Rouge Parish, but only collected 42,563 votes compared to Landry’s 31,308 votes. 

In both Orleans and East Baton Rouge, it appears that votes cast in 2019 for Edwards, but not cast for Wilson in 2023 didn’t go to Landry either, whose showing in 2023 in Orleans Parish of 6,943 votes, was not that much better than the 6,032 votes that Republican Eddie Rispone was able to glean four years earlier. Also, Rispone actually got 5,000 more votes in EBR in 2019 than Landry did in 2023, again suggesting that those missing East Baton Rouge voters, 41,724, to be exact, who went for Edwards in 2019 and should have gone to Wilson, didn’t go at all. Together, there were 77,658 voters between the two parishes that showed up in 2019 for Edwards, that didn’t show up at all in 2023. 

By definition, that’s apathy.

Yes, there are definitely other reasons Wilson lost. But was Black voter acquiescence partly to blame? We don’t like saying this, but YES. 

And y’all, we need to own that. 

We even understand that much of the voter apathy is not apathy at all, but more of a protest on the part of a segment of the electorate tired of being taken for granted.

While there are plenty of good reasons for voters to be apathetic, if we are waiting on politicians and political parties to fix them we will be waiting for a long time.

We have to devise better ways to make elected officials respond to the issues important to us, not showing up cannot be one of those ways. We must be clear and direct about what’s important to our communities and demand measurable results. We need to nurture and support more of our own to run for office. And its imperative that we use our votes to fire elected leaders who don’t respond. 

While Black voter apathy played a role, so did white apathy and racial animus. An examination of unofficial statistics bears this out as much as it can. Between East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes, there were 35,060 fewer Black voters in this year’s primary when compared to 2019. That accounts for more than 45 percent of the 77,658 votes that Edwards got in those two parishes in 2019 that Wilson didn’t get this year.  

And the rest of those missing voters, as best as we can surmise, are Democrats and independents, maybe a few moderate Republicans that identify as white or other races that couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Landry, and didn’t come out for Wilson either. The race factor at play, to be sure.

Of course, population shifts may also play a role. People move in, people move out and demographics change. Over a four-year period, we suspect that the impact of demographic changes was minimal. The bad news is as New Orleans continues to gentrify, the impact of demographic changes on election outcomes will only intensify.

Meanwhile, here’s why it’s critical to note that most of those 77,658 missing votes in EBR and Orleans were not votes that Landry would have gotten. Had those voters, Black, white or otherwise, shown and voted the way they did four years ago – for the leading Democrat in the race – Landry would have only captured about 48 percent of the vote statewide, and Wilson would be in a runoff right now. 

Diversion and Distractions 

First, let’s debunk the idea that a slate of college football games and the Saints’ away game in Houston were actually reasons that voters looked away during this election. There was a week of early voting ahead of Oct. 14, and there was a nearly identical sports line up in 2019: Southern, Grambling and LSU all played at home on Oct. 12, 2019, and the Saints playing in Jacksonville, Fla., the next day. Jacksonville is just a couple of more hours away from New Orleans by car and only a few minutes more away by air than Houston. As such we are certain that plenty of Saints fans traveled out of town for that game as well. Yet, somehow enough die-hard football fans managed to cast their ballots in 2019 to secure a runoff spot for Edwards.

With that settled, let’s talk about the real distractions.

We cannot say for certain what was going on in East Baton Rouge Parish, though we have some suspicions that recent turmoil involving the Baton Rouge Police Department, officers’ arrests and the impending resignation of the police chief all just weeks before the election may have captured the attention of the electorate to the detriment of the governor’s race. 

Here in New Orleans, though, we have a better idea of at least some of the things that distracted voters’ attention. 

Let’s think back to last year’s effort to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Some scoffed at claims that emanated from the Mayor’s camp about the recall effort being nothing more than high-level trolling, funded by Washington-based Republicans, to render her ineffective in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Many political observers noted that Cantrell, along with other elected Democrats in New Orleans, were key in helping mobilize local voters in support of Edwards in both the primary and general elections in 2019. 

But in 2023 with Edwards term-limited, the seat up for grabs. Republicans saw a chance to take it. They would need to sideline largely Black, largely Democratic strongholds in Louisiana, like Orleans Parish. So, wealthy outside Republicans and members of the elite business community decided to capitalize on the infighting in local politics by pouring money into a campaign to recall Cantrell.  That was essentially the Mayor’s position on the recall that began to take shape last summer. And, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of the money that funded the recall campaign, in fact, came from one very wealthy Republican businessman, who, though he is local, has ties to the national party, contributing millions to the GOP, various GOP state parties, GOP organizations and political campaigns across the country.

Meanwhile, the intense and incessant media focus on the Mayor and her office over issues like travel, use of a French Quarter apartment, and the like also served to divert attention and keep voters from focusing on the upcoming governor’s race. 

While there were those who mocked the Mayor’s claims, out of hand, ask yourself these questions: 

Why wouldn’t a Black Democratic mayor of a mostly Black, largely Democratic city publicly endorse a viable Black Democratic candidate in the governor race? 

Why wouldn’t the only viable Democratic candidate in the Louisiana governor’s race seek and publicly announce an endorsement from the mayor of New Orleans?  

How many times did you see Mayor Cantrell rally for or with Wilson in New Orleans? Seriously, ever heard her publicly mention his name? 

While he may have said, generally, that if elected, he would going to work with “the mayor of New Orleans”, how many times can you recall Wilson so much as mentioning Cantrell by name while campaigning here? 

No one else will say it, so we will: If you seriously think any of that was a coincidence, we have a bridge we want to sell you. Whether the result of a Republican plot orchestrated specifically for that reason or collateral fallout from the controversies that have marked her second term, Mayor Cantrell was neutralized in the 2023 governor’s race

And many other local elected officials were so busy with their own political agendas that they failed to rally around the Wilson campaign beyond an endorsement or a photo op.

When we should have been paying attention to the governor’s race, we were falling for the okie doke.

As for Mayor Cantrell, we suspect that she was likely directed by party leaders to refrain from stumping for Wilson in the ways she had done just four years earlier on behalf of Edwards. Likewise, Wilson was probably told by advisers and the like to, while campaigning in New Orleans, stay clear of being aligned too closely with Mayor Cantrell as not to draw any ire from voters here that disapprove of her.

So is Gov.-elect Jeff Landry  the grand prize for all of the attention that New Orleanians have given to petty, local politics? 

Possibly, but this will be our last time crying over spilt milk. 

Race and Racism

Louisianans have not elected a Black person to a statewide office since 1868 – 155 years ago. Even as other states with similar histories of segregation and racism and comparable, if not more stark racial demographics, like Maryland (31 percent Black) and Virginia (20 percent Black), have somehow managed to elect Black governors in modern times, Louisiana remains stuck in some post-Reconstruction nightmare.

What do you get when you take voter apathy, a dash of diversion and mix it with a vat of deeply-entrenched racism? 

You get a qualified Black Democratic gubernatorial candidate that does not even make it to a runoff.

Louisianans have not elected a Black person to a statewide office since 1868 – 155 years ago. Even as other states with similar histories of segregation and racism and comparable, if not more stark racial demographics, like Maryland (31 percent Black) and Virginia (20 percent Black), have somehow managed to elect Black governors in modern times, Louisiana remains stuck in some post-Reconstruction nightmare.

Voter registration stats mirror the state’s racial makeup, with White voters outnumbering Black voters roughly two to one. As such, in order to go to a runoff, Wilson needed the same formula that worked for Edwards in 2019, White Democrats joining Black voters with maybe a smattering of support from independents. And while pundits first pointed to low Black voter turnout, the truth is that not enough can be said about the role of  race and racism in this election outcome. 

Let’s look at the results of the governor’s race in Jefferson Parish, a largely white, mostly Democratic suburb that borders Orleans for some context. Edwards got the support of nearly 59,000 Jefferson voters in 2019, while Wilson barely topped 23,000 votes on Oct. 14. With 18,459 Black voters showing up to the polls in Jefferson earlier this month, we suspect that Wilson got much of that vote, which means something like 5,000 white voters in Jefferson voted for Wilson in 2023, while Edwards got more than 33,000 votes from white Jefferson Parish residents in 2019.

In Jefferson Paris and in several other communities throughout the state, White voters couldn’t get beyond race.

Even when viable Black candidates campaign for statewide seats and make a runoff, victory has remained elusive.

Cleo Field’s run for governor in 1995 is a perfect case study. That jungle primary featured 15 candidates, including two Republicans, seven Democrats and six Independents. Neither of the top two candidates clinched more than 50 percent of the vote, sending Republican Mike Foster, with 26.10 percent of the vote, and Fields, a Black Democrat, with 19.03 percent of the vote, to the runoff.

Fields even bested fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu, who received only 18.43 percent in the primary. Without question, his showing in the primary was carried by solid support from the Black voters across the state. But he would need more than that to win the runoff. And he should have had it. 

Forget about the paltry two percent of the vote that went to independent candidates in the primary. Let’s just pretend that all of those independent primary voters, white or otherwise, went on to cast their runoff ballots for Foster, who of course also picked up Republican Buddy Roemer’s supporters as well. And for the sake of expediency, we will say that the roughly 76,500 voters who participated in the runoff but not the primary were all card-carrying Klan members that crawled from under rocks to vote for Foster just because Fields is Black. Of course, it’s more likely that the new runoff voters included at least some new Fields’ supporters energized by the idea that a Black candidate actually made it to the gubernatorial runoff, but let’s just pretend otherwise. 

Foster gets all of the Republican and independent votes from the primary, plus a boost from 76,500 voters that took part in the runoff, but not the primary. The math still didn’t math. 

Fields just needed to pick up all of the voters who supported his fellow Democrats in the primary. It would have been close, but he would have beaten Foster with just more than 51 percent of the vote. Yet, somehow Foster beats Fields in the runoff with a whopping 64 percent of the vote. There is nothing that explains that other than white folks not getting out of their own way long enough to see past race.

If you are white and voted for Edwards, but not Wilson, we are not saying you are racist. You just have racist tendencies. You should own that. 

Much like Fields did almost three decades ago, we suspect that Wilson got the overwhelming support of Black voters that turned out, but could not get enough support from white voters to win.

White voters, even the so-called Democrats among them, will not support a Black candidate statewide.

And that is the battle Black candidates face in seeking statewide seats in Louisiana.

Still, Wilson remained optimistic throughout the campaign, telling The New Orleans Tribune that the support he received from White voters was one of the things that surprised him along the trail.

To be sure, if voters closed their eyes when Shawn Wilson spoke, they would have had a hard time distinguishing his political ideology from that of his former boss, Gov. John Bel Edwards. While campaigning, Wilson talked as much, if not more, about the Edwards’ gains and accomplishments and how he would continue them if elected as he did his own plans and platform. 

Our point is this: Any white person who could not bring him or herself to vote for Wilson in 2023 but voted for Edwards in 2019 was stopped by one thing – race – because it sure wasn’t the politics or the platform. From education to healthcare to economic development to crime, yes even crime – a Wilson governorship would have been little more than Edwards 2.0. 

If you are white and voted for Edwards, but not Wilson, we are not saying you are racist. You just have racist tendencies. You should own that.

Democrats in Disarray

While racism played a significant role in the election’s outcome, there’s more to why Landry won outright and so easily in the primary. 

The Louisiana Democratic Party endorsed Shawn Wilson, but endorsements do not win elections. Money does.

Shawn Wilson officially kicked off his campaign on March 6, giving him only seven months to fully campaign so that voters would know who is was and what he was about. 

It takes money to advertise, to print election material, to travel the state to campaign and talk to voters, to pay campaign workers. And there has been widespread concern that the state Democratic Party did not come through the way that it should have for leading Democratic candidates, especially those in statewide races.

If they were serious about holding on to the Louisiana governorship, both the state and national Democratic parties should have done more to shore up the Wilson campaign.

According to campaign finance reports submitted 10 days before the primary, Landry had more than $4.5 million on hand, while Wilson only had $721,000. While much of Wilson’s funding came by way of small donations, more than $3.1 million of Landry’s funds came from GOP political organizations and committees. Why couldn’t Wilson get that kind of support from similar Democratic groups?

It’s not like the national party and related organizations have not been pouring money into governor’s races, U.S. House and Senate races. They have to the tune of  $44 million last spent in 2022 on . . . get this . . . Republican primaries in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois  and Maryland, using a tactic designed to highlight  the far-right, extremist GOP candidates — election deniers, insurrection supporters and the like.  Basically, they wanted those guys to win their primaries, figuring that the extremists would be easier to beat in the general elections. 

Sometimes, it worked. Democrat Wes Moore handed right-wing extremist John Cox lopsided beating in Maryland’s gubernatorial race. Sometimes, it didn’t. Republican U.S. Rep. David Valadao, one of only 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Donald Trump in 2020, defeated a far-right Republican challenger in the primary and the Democratic nominee in the general election to hang on to his seat in Congress.

Now, it’s not that these Democratic organizations spent $44 million on a shell game that troubles us. It’s that they spent $44 million on a you-win-some-you lose-some tactic, but couldn’t spare a couple of million to hold on to the governor’s mansion in Louisiana.

Then there are the examples of disorganization in the state party, such as random Democratic ballots, including some that urged Democrats to vote “yes” for a constitutional amendment that had already been knocked down by the Democratic governor when it came before him as legislation passed Republicans. 

And perhaps one of the most telling signs that the state Democratic party is a bit out of touch was its full backing of moderate Madison O’Malley in the district House race against state Rep. Mandi Landry, whose progressive stances and unwillingness to compromise with House Republicans might make her a liability in the eyes of Louisiana’s Dixiecrats, but clearly made her a favorite with her constituents as she easily beat O’Malley.

In fact, one of the most glaring issues the Democratic Party has faced both at the state and national level is a growing a concern among progressives that believe issues important to them and the people for whom they speak are marginalized by party leaders for the sake of moderateness and compromise.

Issues with Louisiana Democrats start at the top, but trickle down. In this cycle, there were Democrats at the local level, who publicly aligned themselves with local Republican candidates, because it made sense for their own interests.

We’ve seen it at play, with Democrats like Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee, who urged Black voters to support Republican candidates for the Jefferson Parish Council’s at-large seats. It’s true that there were no Democrats in either of the at-large Council seat races in Jefferson, and that’s part of the problem. Instead of working with state and local party leaders to find viable Democrats, and preferably some Black candidates for at least one of the parish’s at-large seats, locally elected Democrats appear content to preserve their position instead of pushing for change. We agree with Public Service Commission Davante Lewis. This go-along-to-get-along routine needs to end if Democrats in Louisiana want to be taken seriously.

Lewis, appeared on Roland Martin’s show shortly after the gubernatorial primary to share his concerns over the direction of the state Democratic Party.

After some pointed questions from Martin, Lewis pulled no punches sharing his distaste for what he characterized as a state Democratic establishment, whose leaders were more concerned with “self-aggrandizement” than the good of the party or the people it is supposed to represent.

“We’ve got to stop trying to make deals with the Republicans and stand up for Black people and Black issues and the poor of Louisiana. There is a message that we need to take. We want to see real leadership in control of the party. When we had a real progressive leader in the form of Ted James running for leadership of the state party, Congressman Richmond did not support him, and that’s a problem. He supported Katie Bernhardt. We need to talk about it.”

Lewis was referring to the 2020 campaign for the state Democratic Party chair. While James, then a state  representative, had the early backing of Gov. Edwards. In late August 2020, James withdrew, stating he wanted to focus more on the national politics and issues. Richmond’s public endorsement of Bernhardt was announced on Sept. 9, 2020, and Bernhardt was elected as party chair three days later on Sept. 12.

According to media reports, James said he, Gov. Edwards and Richmond were in agreement that his focus on the national campaign to regain the White House and other issues were a better fit. After Biden was elected president, Richmond went on to serve as a senior advisor to the White House from early 2020 to the spring of 2022. And in December 2021, President Biden named James as the Region VI Administrator of the federal Small Business Association. 

Great for the SBA, perhaps not so great for the Democratic State Central Committee.

Under Bernhardt’s leadership, there have been a number of examples of a party in disarray, including its triple endorsement in the U.S. Senate race of all three Democratic candidates vying to oust U.S. Sen. John Kennedy. Bernhardt drew ire over her push for the triple endorsement instead of a full endorsement of Gary Chambers.

Lewis, himself, may have his own reasons to feel some kind of way about the state Democratic Party and Bernhardt. In the race where Lewis successfully ran to unseat incumbent PSC Commissioner Lambert Bossiere, also a Democrat, both Bossiere and Lewis had the endorsement of the state Party, but only Bossiere received funding for campaign material. A call reportedly made by Bernhardt.

In one of the latest issues, making what might, on its face, look like a solid decision, Bernhardt successfully sought to suspend the organization’s bylaws this summer to push through its endorsement of Wilson in June instead of waiting the required two weeks after candidate qualifying closed in August.

Two state party members, Katherine Hurst and Aimee Robinson, filed a lawsuit against Bernhardt just two days before the body was set to vote on suspending the bylaws and endorsing Wilson, in an attempt to stop Bernhardt for calling for the suspension.

Hurst reportedly said her issue was not with Wilson, whom she supported, but with suspending the bylaws instead of following the procedures that required submitting a 45-day notice to the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Why couldn’t Hurst and Robinson accept that the party needed to do what it needed to do, especially because the endorsement was seen as critical to helping Wilson raise campaign funds?

Then again, maybe a more interesting question is why did the party waited so long to endorse Wilson in the first place? He declared his candidacy on March 6 and was endorsed by the highest elected statewide official and de facto head of the party, Gov. Edwards, the very next day. Bernhardt could have submitted a 45-day notice on March 7 to change the rules to endorse Wilson, giving him even more time to use the party endorsement as a part of his fundraising arsenal. 

Why did Bernhardt and the party wait until late June, more than three months after Wilson officially announced, to get the ball rolling? Were they waiting for another candidate to save day? Was Bernhardt still secretly considering a run for governor herself? 

Disarray, indeed. 

The good news: As noted in our endorsements, voters still have the opportunity to make a difference in state government and possibly create some safeguards against the consequences of the impending Landry administration, with three statewide races – secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general – on the runoff ballot. 

Deep breath. 

We wanted to talk about it. No, we needed to talk about what happened on Oct. 14. And now that we have, can we all — voters, party leaders, elected officials, Black folk, white folk — all of us do better? 

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