Last week, University of New Orleans professor Ed Chervenak released the results of his biennial "Quality of Life" survey, which measures the responses of voters in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes regarding their satisfaction levels on a wide spectrum of issues, from elected officials to sociological trends. After Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods in 2005, the surveys focused on the region's recovery. This year's survey dropped that approach and returned to inquiring about voter satisfaction across the board. The results should hearten some Orleans Parish public officials — but they also should serve as an early warning, because they hint at some troubling trends. A few examples:
Mayor Mitch Landrieu — As Landrieu approaches his second anniversary as mayor, he remains extremely popular with New Orleanians across the board, though his numbers are slightly lower than they were in 2010 (69 percent approval, down from 75 percent). Landrieu took office with strong biracial support, and his popularity among white voters has actually grown a bit — but he has lost 12 percentage points among black voters, particularly among black male voters.
"The decline in approval for the mayor appears to be due to two factors: jobs and crime," Chervenak wrote in his analysis. The Orleans poll was conducted Feb. 23-29, one day before the shooting of Justin Sipp, which is still being investigated by NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau, and one week before the killing of Wendell Allen (who was unarmed) during a marijuana bust in Gentilly. Since then, one of the cops in the Sipp case, Jason Giroir, has resigned over online comments he made regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Landrieu and NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas responded quickly to both shootings and to the Giroir flap, but both matters still could undermine Landrieu's support among African-Americans.
NOPD and Chief Ronal Serpas — In the 2010 survey, 46 percent of New Orleanians said the biggest local problem was crime. This year, that number jumped to 61 percent. Moreover, in 2010 less than 40 percent of respondents said crime was increasing overall; this year that number was 64 percent.
Figures released by the NOPD in early March confirm these perceptions. By the department's own numbers, crime was up 10 percent in 2011 over 2010. Serpas explained this by saying people are reporting more crimes because they have more confidence in NOPD. Whether you believe that or not, the survey measures voter perceptions, not citizen reporting. In 2010, 19 percent of New Orleanians said they didn't feel safe around their homes after nightfall. This year, that number jumped to 36 percent.
This year's survey shows Serpas himself is a polarizing figure. Forty-nine percent say they approve or strongly approve of his performance, while 44 percent disapprove or strongly disapprove. Broken down by race, however, Serpas' numbers are stark: 23 percent of black respondents strongly approve of the chief, compared to only 14 percent of whites. But when it comes to strong disapproval, only 13 percent of whites said they strongly disapprove of Serpas, while 34 percent of blacks felt that way. "It appears there is not only polarization between blacks and whites when it comes to Serpas' job approval rating, but there is also of a divergence of opinion within the African-American community regarding the police chief," Chervenak wrote in his summary.
New Orleans City Council — The poll did not measure individual council members' standing, but the overall trend is clear: Voter confidence in the council has pancaked, particularly among African-Americans. In 2008, 68 percent of respondents approved of the council. By 2010, it was down to 58 percent. This year, council approval fell to 49 percent. Only one-third of black respondents approve of the council, while one-quarter of them strongly disapprove.
Not all trends in the study were negative. While citizens remain skeptical of public education in the city, the numbers are better than they were before Hurricane Katrina and the rise of the charter school movement. Voters also are happy with trash pickup and litter control. Other government services were perceived as improving, including drainage and public transportation, the latter reflecting the steps made toward restoring the city's bus and streetcar system. And voters were cautiously optimistic about the local economy, which reflects the national outlook.
Overall, the 2012 survey should serve as an early warning system for Serpas, NOPD and the City Council. Landrieu remains popular, but the dip in his African-American support should give him pause. The 2012 Quality of Life survey has a sampling error of plus-or-minus 5.7 percent. You can download your own copy at http://poli.uno.edu/unopoll/studies/.