The Feb. 1 citywide primary brought very good news to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, but Saturday's (March 15) runoff elections did not. While Landrieu won big in the primary with almost 64 percent of the vote, his chosen candidates in two City Council runoffs lost by large margins. All in all, it’s been a good election season for younger candidates who faced older opponents.
In the at-large council race for Division 2, District D Councilmember Cynthia Hedge Morrell lost to attorney Jason Williams 68-32 percent. In Council District C, where incumbent Kristin Gisleson Palmer decided relatively late not to seek a second term, long-time Councilmember Jackie Clarkson fell to former Judge Nadine Ramsey by a 59-41 percent margin. The margin in District C closely tracks the district’s voter registration by race, although both Clarkson and Ramsey got their share of crossover votes.
Both Hedge Morrell and Clarkson have been staunch council allies of the mayor, who clearly will have to work a lot harder to cobble together a 4-vote majority on key issues in his second term.
There were two other seismic shifts in the politics of the council as a result of this election cycle: first, the council once again will have a five-vote African-American majority (which it had before Hurricane Katrina); and second, this election produced a generational shift on the council.
It was clear immediately after qualifying closed in mid-December that African Americans would hold at least four of the council’s seven seats. Clarkson’s loss to Ramsey in District C gave black voters a fifth seat on the council. In the Division 2 at-large race, all the candidates who qualified are African American.
The council’s generational shift occurred in several seats. In District D, the 66-year-old Hedge Morrell was term limited; she was succeeded by a young ally, 31-year-old state Rep. Jared Brossett. In her first bid for a citywide seat, Hedge Morrell lost to 41-year-old Williams, who also is the son-in-law of former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.
Although 58-year-old Ramsey is 12 years older that Gisleson Palmer in District C, she is 20 years younger than the 78-year-Clarkson, who began her long political career in 1990 by winning the District C seat.
Age was never an articulated issue in their contests, but both Clarkson and Hedge Morrell were the targets of ads claiming that they were trying to get around the council’s two-term limit. Strictly speaking, each sought a different seat on the council than the ones they currently hold. However, that did not stop their opponents — and a good many voters — from accusing them of violating the spirit of term limits.
If voters this year were looking for new faces, or at least something other than the same old faces, that would also explain new incumbent James Gray’s win in the Feb. 1 primary over veteran politico Cynthia Willard-Lewis in the race for District E. Gray held the District E seat for a little over a year when he beat Willard-Lewis, who has spent most of the past 20 years in elective office. She served as a state representative, a City Council member from District E, and a state senator. She lost five of her last six races, however, including two for an at-large seat on the council.
In the races for sheriff and coroner, age again seemed to be more a factor than race. Incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who is black, easily beat white former Sheriff Charles Foti, 67-33 percent. Gusman won handily in black precincts but also captured a healthy share of the white vote in the runoff. In the coroner’s race, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, who is white, squeaked by Dr. Dwight McKenna, who is black, by a margin of 51-49 percent. Both Gusman and Rouse are significantly younger than their opponents. Gusman is 58; Foti is 76. Rouse is 39; McKenna is 72.
Also on the ballot was a millage proposition for the Audubon Zoo. Styled as a renewal of two existing millages, the proposed 4.2-mill property tax for Audubon was crushed by a margin of 65-35 percent. Audubon spent heavily on feel-good ads touting the success of the Audubon Nature Institute, the private non-profit that manages all Audubon facilities, but an intense effort by opponents derailed the initiative.
While voters clearly love the zoo and other Audubon institutions, the proposed millage struck many as too soon, too much and too long. The primary current millage for the zoo doesn’t expire until 2021; the proposed millage would have raised nearly $12 million a year (in current dollars) for the zoo at a time when public safety, recreation and infrastructure needs are severe; and the 50-year lifespan of the proposed millage struck many as just too long.
The good news for Audubon is that the zoo has lots of time to re-tool its proposal and go back to voters for an renewal. The mayor, on the other hand, will spend the next four years having to deal with a reconfigured City Council that will be looking for ways to show its independence.