What hap­pens here may not stay here

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - NEW OR­LEANS.

The politi­cians and the pun­dits are still sort­ing through this month’s mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion re­turns, and the re­sults hint at con­se­quences reach­ing far be­yond the bay­ous.

Th­ese are the first re­ally sig­nif­i­cant elec­tion re­turns since Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina blew away life as New Or­leans had known it for a long time. An older white wo­man, “the rusted steel mag­no­lia,” de­feated an at­trac­tive young black wo­man, “the black Scar­lett O’Hara,” to com­plete a sweep of two at-large seats on the city coun­cil and re­turn con­trol of the city gov­ern­ment, held for two decades by blacks. The mag­no­lia — steel or not, rusty or not — won with black “cross­over” votes.

This sug­gests what only a new cen­sus can con­firm, that the smaller pop­u­la­tion of New Or­leans, which was 70 per­cent black be­fore Ka­t­rina, may now be evenly di­vided be­tween the races, per­haps even ma­jor­ity white. “De­spite the fact that at least on the vot­ing rolls [blacks] still out­num­ber whites by a ra­tio of more than 2 to 1,” ob­served the morn­ing TimesPicayune, “both white and black vot­ers in New Or­leans have gone to the polls in nearly equal num­bers since the storm.” The po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions are large, since New Or­leans and its black ma­jor­ity have kept Louisiana from tip­ping Repub­li­can.

“Sym­bol­i­cally, what it shows is that we have a re­align­ment po­lit­i­cally,” says Si­las Lee, an Xavier Univer­sity poll­ster. “Ad­vances made by AfricanAmer­i­can elected of­fi­cials and the African-Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal struc­ture over the past 30 years right now are in neu­tral or be­ing lost.”

The Or­leans Parish voter regis­trar es­ti­mates that more than 100,000 vot­ers have left New Or­leans, to find new jobs, new homes and new lives in Hous­ton, At­lanta, Mem­phis, and points north and west. Most are black, most won’t be back.

A precinct-by-precinct anal­y­sis by the Times-Picayune and oth­ers re­veals just how much the land­scape has changed. Racial po­lar­iza­tion is still a grim fact of life, but since there are fewer blacks the po­lar­iza­tion has shifted to white ad­van­tage. Ed Cherve- nak, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of New Or­leans, says the politi­cians will have to build coali­tions they didn’t have to bother with be­fore. “There’s no more re­ly­ing on a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity to get elected.” White of­fice-seek­ers who for decades fig­ured mak­ing an at­tempt was not worth the trou­ble will be lured back to elec­tive pol­i­tics.

New Or­leans, once with­out ri­val as the state’s largest city, has al­ways wagged the dog in Louisiana. Now Ba­ton Rouge, the cap­i­tal 80 miles up the Mis­sis­sippi River, is al­most surely larger, and Shreve­port, in the far north­west cor­ner of the state, can’t be not far be­hind. An­cient voter loy­al­ties, dat­ing from Re­con­struc­tion, are strong and hard to change. In a very dif­fer­ent time, New Or­leans was a hard oys­ter to crack even for Huey Long, but once the King­fish cracked it, the oys­ter was his.

Other tra­di­tions have cracked, too. DeLesseps Mor­ri­son, a suave, world­class so­phis­ti­cate who was an enor- mously pop­u­lar mayor of New Or­leans dur­ing the post-World War II boom, tried re­peat­edly to get elected gov­er­nor. He was de­rided by Earl Long as “ol’ Della Soups,” and mocked for “squirt­ing per­fume in his armpits,” but his ac­tual fa­tal flaw was his Ro­man Catholic faith. No Catholic had ever run well enough in the piney­woods parishes to break the Protes­tant lock on the gov­er­nor’s of­fice. Ed­win Ed­wards, a Catholic con­vert who once stud­ied for the Pen­te­costal min­istry, fi­nally did it. “Up north,” he once told me, “they trusted me be­cause they fig­ured I was ly­ing about re­ally con­vert­ing.” Last month, barely a decade af­ter a wizard of the Ku Klux Klan forced his way into a run-off for gov­er­nor, Louisiana elected a dark­skinned In­dian, a Catholic con­vert from the Hindu faith.

The buzz in New Or­leans is that Louisiana is tired of the cor­rup­tion and the easy jokes about cor­rup­tion, and ea­ger for some­thing bet­ter. Stranger things have hap­pened in “the land of dreamy dreams.” You could look it up.

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times.

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