Most of the workers are unpaid, a change Democrats have noted for weeks. On this day, grass-roots political organizing has brushed aside ward bosses in favor of impassioned volunteers energized by the prospect of electing Sen. Barack Obama as America's next president. The notion of Democrats paying election day workers, however, didn't die out completely with Obama's historic bid.
Just ask New Orleans native Jason White, 21, who's leaning against a chain-link fence a few hundred feet from one of Scotlandville's polling stations. He says he was paid $125 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to be a member of the party's "Team for Change," adding there's "hundreds of others" filling similar roles in the region. White, a student at Southern University, is fortunate. Just two years ago, the going Democratic rate for election day workers was closer to $50. "It doesn't matter to me," White says. "I just wanted to help make a difference."
Obama won East Baton Rouge Parish, despite President Bush's former appeal in the Capitol City. Strangely enough, East Baton Rouge also went for Republican Bill Cassidy in the Sixth Congressional District contest. Then again, that race had two Democrats dividing up the city's black vote, which is what helped Cassidy win with a 48 percent plurality. Still, the dichotomy of Democrat Obama and Republican Cassidy both leading in the parish left hacks and flacks scratching their heads.
Obama's national win was indeed historic, but in Louisiana he managed to get just 38 percent of the vote. The only black candidate who had nearly that much success was former Congressman Cleo Fields, who notched 36 percent statewide in his bid against Mike Foster in the 1995 gubernatorial race.
The new president's showing may be a sign that Louisiana is slowly retreating from its long history of racially charged politics, but holdouts remain. For example, while Obama made inroads in places like Baton Rouge, he was unable to capture any of the parishes that neo-Nazi David Duke won in the 1991 "runoff from hell" against now-jailed Edwin Edwards. That makes Louisiana no longer a bright red state but clearly not yet blue more of a bright purple. In the end, Louisiana reflected a trend across the South last week as 21 million Southerners voted for Republican John McCain, compared to the 18.6 million votes cast for his Democratic opponent.
Despite McCain's huge lead in Louisiana, black voters remain a major force statewide, particularly in New Orleans. In contrast to dire predictions of a "Katrina effect" in the wake of the 2005 storms, incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, swept her Big Easy base with her biggest margin of victory ever. She carried New Orleans by nearly 86,000 votes and trounced GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy by almost 120,000 statewide. "The fact is that there was an opposite effect," Landrieu says. "People came back and we came together."
Landrieu also capitalized on a new bloc of black Democratic votes in Caddo Parish, where she won by a margin of more than 19,000. Democrats have been cultivating the Caddo region in far northwestern Louisiana for two years. In 2006, Landrieu and other Democrats poured cash into the area to help former state Rep. Cedric Glover become mayor of Shreveport, laying a foundation for this year and future efforts. Her political action committee donated $2,500 toward Glover's effort in "06, and the state party spent more than $30,000 on election day alone, paying 75 workers $50 or more each to get people to the polls. Buses transported many voters, and thousands of advertising dollars were spent on urban radio stations. That formula has worked in New Orleans for generations, and more recently in Baton Rouge. "But I had never seen it on this scale in Shreveport [as in 2006]," says Shreveport demographer and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher.
Another interesting twist during last week's election involves voters' treatment of the state's seven proposed constitutional amendments: They approved only three. Those that passed will impose new term limits for certain board and commission members, require extra notice in advance of a special legislative session, and allow temporary successors to be appointed for legislators deployed to active military duty. Early data indicated some degree of voter fatigue (or apathy) regarding the amendments, says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based think tank. For example, the number of people casting votes on each of the seven propositions declined steadily from the first amendment to the last. More than 100,000 more voters weighed in on amendment No. 1 than on amendment No. 7. "This result is somewhat surprising considering that voters have approved all but one of the 30 amendment proposals in the five elections since 2004," Brandt says.
For all the heightened interest in the presidential race, voters quickly lost interest in much of the "down ballot" items. No doubt analysts will ponder the meaning of that for years, but for now, the only sure thing is that the 2008 election is one that no one in Louisiana or elsewhere will soon forget. Correction Melissa Sellers, Gov. Bobby Jindal's spokesperson, says the endorsement commercials Jindal cut for last week's election were not shot at the Pentagon Barracks as reported in "Post-Mortem Fact Check (News & Views, Nov. 4), but at a private residence. Sellers did not respond to questions regarding who owned the private residence.