At the end of the day, somebody wins and somebody loses. The outcome usually turns on the question of who did the best job of mastering the fundamentals, devising a good game plan and executing it.
In New Orleans' first citywide elections since Hurricane Katrina, the world watched in anticipation of some sea-changing event, some poignant message from the city's storm-weary voters. What it got was the Crescent City's version of a unique political event -- one that was won by those who did the best job of campaign blocking and tackling.
Mayor Ray Nagin surprised a lot of people by winning re-election, but his victory should have been expected. It's been 60 years since New Orleans voters tossed out an incumbent mayor. Voters here fear change more than failure. They tend to stick with the demons they know. Plus, Nagin did just about everything right once the campaign started.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, voters cried out for change. Then the elections were postponed because of the storm and the diaspora of voters. Several lawsuits followed, and a federal judge ultimately forged a compromise that set the primary on April 22 and the runoff for May 20. That seven-week delay from the scheduled primary date of Feb. 4 probably got Nagin re-elected. It bought him crucial time to gain traction in the city's fledgling recovery efforts, and it gave voters time to cool off. Both worked to hizzoner's advantage.
It also helped that Nagin is a superb campaigner. While he is often criticized as mayor for not seeking or heeding good advice, he tends to get -- and follow -- great counsel on the campaign trail. He also wears well on most voters; even those who don't support him admit that they like him. He also remains unflappable on the stump and in debates. In fact, his cockiness usually rattles his opponents to the point of distraction.
In this campaign, Nagin also pulled the political equivalent of a Hail Mary play. He shed the constituency that elected him four years ago -- whites and middle-class blacks -- and then won with the coalition that backed his losing opponent last time around. That's not easy. He had some help from Katrina, from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Cleo Fields -- and from his vanquished opponent, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.
A CHALLENGER'S FIRST, MOST FUNDAMENTAL TASK in taking on an incumbent is to give voters a compelling argument for change.
Step Two is to present yourself as the most logical alternative to the incumbent.
Step Three is to convince voters that you can deliver on your promises.
It sounds a lot easier than it is.
Mitch Landrieu utterly failed to take Step One and, because those steps are sequential, little else that he did or said mattered. In fact, he said in several debates that there was not much difference, philosophically, between himself and Nagin. That screamed to white voters, who should have been his base: Stay home! It doesn't matter! It also made it easier for conservative whites (particularly Republicans, encouraged by a carefully orchestrated campaign attributed to the White House) to vote for Nagin, which they did in significant numbers.
Landrieu also refused to criticize Nagin in debates. This "kid glove" approach made him look timid, even daunted by Nagin. His black vote, which was 25 percent in the primary, shrank to 20 percent in the runoff. One could argue that he lost black anti-Nagin votes between the primary and the runoff because he wussed out. He was afraid of being the white guy picking on the black mayor after the big, bad storm -- because his liberal white conscience feared a black backlash.
Consequently, he soft-peddled any potential criticism of Nagin -- and there was a lot that he could have criticized Nagin for -- or kept it to himself. The ultimate irony for Landrieu was that while he didn't even take a swing at Nagin, he got the backlash anyway: blacks turned out for the mayor in overwhelming numbers. In the primary, Nagin won about two-thirds of the black vote; in the runoff, his share of black votes jumped to 80 percent. The mayor's white vote was a paltry 7 percent in the primary, but it exceeded 20 percent in the runoff -- and much of the increase could be attributed to a strong "anti-Landrieu" undercurrent among Uptown whites.
Having failed to take Step One, Landrieu proceeded directly to Step Three -- and there was a disconnect. He failed to give voters a compelling reason to reject Nagin, and he failed to present himself as the logical alternative. Instead, he simply argued that he could do everything that Nagin was promising better than Nagin could.
Fifty-two percent of the voters didn't buy it.
Contrast Landrieu's miscalculations with the recent winning strategy of new Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz, another familiar name with tons of political experience, who ousted incumbent Phil Capitano in a red-hot post-Katrina election. Muniz qualified very late but articulated a clear message from the get-go: "The incumbent is ineffective and his constant political bickering is holding Kenner back. We need to make a change. I will bring peace to Kenner. My record shows that I can and will do it." Step One. Step Two. Step Three. Blocking and tackling. Muniz wins.
Landrieu's strategic blunder also left an opening for Nagin to redefine himself as a victim who was at least getting better at handling the crisis -- and to define Landrieu as an unacceptable alternative. At a minimum, Nagin is likable, telegenic and smooth. He looked great in the debates, whereas Landrieu looked either too rehearsed or too timid. Nagin finished his challenger off with ads featuring voters making comments like, "too many Landrieus." Nagin, the incumbent, effectively turned the tables on Landrieu and positioned himself as the challenger who gave voters a reason not to choose the lieutenant governor.
Perhaps Landrieu assumed that Katrina, along with voter outrage in its aftermath, would convince voters that change was needed. To be sure, external events often shape the outcomes of elections. Then again, there is no substitute for a message. Challengers must have one, and it must start with the words, "We need a change, and here's why."
Had the elections been held as originally planned in February and March, people's anger might still have been roiling on Election Day. Instead, as the weeks wore on, Landrieu failed to show the kind of passion many people thought he would bring to the race. At the same time, Nagin began to look like he was getting it together. In the end, Landrieu just ran out of gas -- despite raising $3 million.
It just goes to show that money can't overcome everything.
Meanwhile, the City Council races followed the general rule that if incumbents don't win in the primary, they don't win. All three council incumbents who were forced into runoffs went down to defeat on May 20 -- Jackie Clarkson, Jay Batt and Renee Gill Pratt. All three lost to political newcomers.
Clearly, voters who wanted to send a message of change used the council elections as their sounding board. A majority of the council -- four members -- are new faces, thanks to Clarkson giving up her safe District C seat to run at-large. Councilman at-Large Eddie Sapir was term-limited and did not run for any office this time.
If there's one place where change itself is always the enemy, it's in the assessor's offices. Six of New Orleans' seven assessors were re-elected, although two were forced into runoffs in order to keep their jobs. The only losing assessor was the one who had never faced voters before -- Al Coman, who was appointed to his post less than a year ago when his mom, former Sixth District Assessor Janyce Degan, retired. Coman's name was not known to most of his constituents, and he thus became the only assessor to lose to an "IQ" candidate, new Assessor Nancy Marshall.
Elsewhere, citywide incumbents all got re-elected -- except for Criminal Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson Butler, who emerged from three days in jail to proclaim herself a compatriot of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi before embarking on a quixotic (and that's being kind) campaign for mayor. For all her zaniness, Butler finished slightly ahead of former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson, whose comments about "pimps, gang-bangers and welfare queens" easily established her as the pit bull of the contest.
Immediately after qualifying, there were fears in the black community that whites had conspired to "take back" the city. Such talk was vastly overblown. As the campaigns of Landrieu, Ron Forman and Rob Couhig showed, whites aren't that organized. At least, not politically.
All of which brings us to the quadrennial body count in the wake of the electoral bloodletting. Time to bury the dead and shoot the wounded, so let's start with ... DA WINNAS 1. Oliver Thomas -- I rarely include candidates on this list, but Thomas' big win in the primary for his at-large council seat clearly established him not only as the lead dog on the City Council, but also as the early favorite in the race to succeed Nagin four years hence. Thomas was begged to endorse in the other at-large race, but he demurred. He did, however, support James Carter in the District C race, and he helped clinch Carter's victory over Kristin Palmer. Look for him to stake out positions that contrast his potential leadership with that of Nagin in the coming months and years, not so much on philosophical grounds as on matters of style and -- tell me if this sounds familiar -- ability to get things done.
2. David White -- This businessman and behind-the-scenes broker was the mayor's No. 1 adviser and fundraiser four years ago, and he has stuck with his Pygmalion through thick and thin. Of course, neither the mythological nor White's modern Pygmalion was very good at taking cues once the sculptor's aim was achieved -- but what the heck, a win is a win. Besides, at least White understands politics. He will remain the go-to guy for anyone who wants the mayor's ear.
3. Rob Couhig -- The Republican businessman-attorney delivered the first major white endorsement for Nagin in the runoff, thereby opening the conservative and GOP floodgates for hizzoner. Couhig's debating skills set him apart in the primary, even though he was just too late getting into the race and didn't have enough time to build name recognition. Now he'll advise Nagin in the first 100 days of the mayor's second term, particularly with regard to issues of staffing and housing. It will be interesting to see if, and how much, Nagin listens to Couhig.
4. Neighborhood Associations -- In council elections, neighborhood associations have replaced political organizations as the new power brokers. Most don't endorse, but they do provide venues for debates and a forum for voters to listen to candidates and exchange views amongst themselves.
5. e-Campaigners -- More than ever, technology is driving the strategy of political campaigns. Mass emails, blogs and podcasts are becoming de riguer campaign tools for successful candidates, and a whole new cottage industry has blossomed almost overnight for techno-savvy politicos. Welcome to the New Age of politics.
Which brings us to ... DA LOOZAS 1. Political Organizations -- They just don't seem to matter any more. Nagin's victory four years ago accelerated their budding marginalization, particularly when hizzoner won with most of the black middle class, which doesn't need anyone to tell them how to vote anyway. For decades, black political organizations held forth as the incubators of future black political leaders, yet amongst them all they couldn't field a single candidate against the mayor they all despise. They are dinosaurs.
2. The Business Community -- Exemplified by the Business Council of Greater New Orleans, the city's business leaders were mostly lined up behind Ron Forman in the primary and then Landrieu in the runoff. Four years ago, they helped elect Nagin, then -- along with many others -- they deserted him in the wake of Katrina and amidst hizzoner's off-the-wall rants and frequent flip-flops. Nagin got the last laugh, even if he was the only one who appreciated his idea of a joke, telling businesses that are thinking about leaving the city: "I'll send you a postcard." Ouch!
3. Republicans -- The party split along several lines in the mayor's race (including the runoff) and lost a City Council seat as well. The White House clearly set out to stick a knife in Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu by helping Nagin against her little brother, but it remains to be seen whether the wound was fatal. In the end, the national GOP helped re-elect an African-American Democratic mayor who has promised to bring back all of the city's neighborhoods, most of which were filled with Democratic voters prior to Katrina. If they return, you can be sure they'll still vote for Mary for Senate. Moreover, the safest (and only) Republican seat in town -- the District A City Council seat -- was lost by incumbent Jay Batt to Democratic newcomer Shelley Midura.
4. Bishop Paul Morton -- When you're a big-time black political player and you take aim at the city's incumbent black mayor, you better not miss. Morton is certainly not down for the count, but he clearly didn't bring any new votes to Landrieu in the runoff.
5. Bill Jefferson -- Louisiana's first black congressman since Reconstruction is drowning in bad press after sensational FBI raids on his homes and offices and guilty pleas by former aides and associates. To make matters worse, his political organization seems to be in tatters. His sister won re-election as assessor only after being forced into a runoff by unknowns, and protg Renee Gill Pratt lost her seat on the City Council in District B. Now his only entree into City Hall is getting Ray Nagin on the phone, which ain't easy. It may not matter, because "Dollar Bill" clearly has more urgent fires to put out these days. He has to run in the fall, but he may be taking a big fall before then.
But that's another election, with a whole new round of casualties.