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Following the Leaders 

A look back at the New Orleans mayoral contests that mattered most.>

As the run-off election for mayor looms ahead on March 2, the big question for many voters might still be: does it matter? Not just the hectic, contentious, money-soaked contest for the big job at City Hall, but the election itself. What relevance does it, in the end, hold for everyday living in New Orleans?

In more than two-thirds of the local mayoral contests since the advent of the New Deal (for the nation's cities, the dawning of the Modern Age), the choice has nearly always boiled down to either an incumbent almost destined to win, or two finalists running essentially consensus campaigns that are pledged to keep things the same. What possible significance can be gleaned from, for example, the l965 face-off between Mayor Vic Schiro and James Fitzmorris, a contest between two consensus white candidates whose conservative platforms were in many ways identical? Or the l985 race between Sidney Barthelemy and William Jefferson, two consensus African-American candidates whose liberal platforms were nearly entirely identical?

"Not every election is a major event," concedes Silas Lee, the Xavier University political pollster who has studied New Orleans mayoral elections for more than a generation. "But the ones that have been important have really defined an era and brought to the city the kind of change that proved lasting."

"I think there has been only a handful of elections that have made a difference, elections you could call historic," says political consultant Allan Katz, who covered two races as a reporter for The Times-Picayune that nearly everyone agrees were pivotal: Moon Landrieu's dramatic l969 election and the even more unexpected l977 victory of Ernest "Dutch" Morial, who became the city's first black mayor in the face of a then-vigorous white opposition.

Added to these contests would be three other significant victories: the l934 triumph of T. Semmes Walmsley, winning his first full term (he succeeded to the office after the resignation of Mayor Arthur O'Keefe in l929) despite a massive, nationally publicized opposition from Huey P. Long; the surprise 1946 election of Uptown reformer De Lesseps S. Morrison, who beat the corpulent incumbent Robert Maestri, a machine politician in the days when machines had real power; and Marc Morial's triumph in l994 on a platform of reducing crime and jump-starting New Orleans' economy.

"You have to remember that New Orleans then was known as the murder capital of the world," says Lee. "And Morial's victory was looked at as a last chance to save the city."

Most of these races possess similar traits: Most were open races with no incumbent running for re-election; almost by consensus, both the candidates and voters agreed that long-standing problems were in need of new solutions; and each election was close. Morrison bested Maestri by 3,000 votes; Landrieu topped Fitzmorris -- by 13,000 votes; and Dutch Morial squeaked by veteran councilman-at-large Joseph V. DiRosa by only 6,000 votes.

"It seems that in some of the most important elections, the personality of the candidate had a lot to do with it, too," says Ed Renwick, the director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics and a long-time mayoral election scholar. "People who saw Dutch Morial's combative side during the l977 campaign should not have been surprised after he became mayor and he was still combative. Nor should they have been surprised that Sidney Barthelemy as mayor was so low-key, when that was clearly on display during his campaign."

Concludes Renwick: "A person does not suddenly change just because he's been elected mayor."

That observation especially holds true with Walmsley's triumph over the Huey Long team in the bitter l934 contest. An Uptown blueblood who was a member of the exclusive Boston and Pickwick clubs, Walmsley was known for his integrity, patrician protectiveness (he entered Gallier Hall just five months before the l929 stock market crash that signaled the onset of the Great Depression), and a stubborn predilection for going his own way.

"I find it always best to be direct with the people," Walmsley rather stuffily once observed, as quoted in The Times-Picayune, adding: "That saves a lot of misunderstandings later." As the January l934 race dawned, Walmsley was particularly direct with Huey Long, former governor of the state and then a U.S. Senator who very much wanted to run for president in l936. The Kingfish, however, had one problem: the political establishment of New Orleans -- the redoubtable machine of the Old Regulars, with Walmsley as their nominal head -- had earlier carved out a truce with Long, but now bucked when he demanded to determine most of the candidates slated to run in the city.

"Now everyone will be able to go forward with his head held high," Walmsley happily announced after the break with Long was made public, revealing the sort of above-it-all attitude that infuriated Huey. "We have not," Walmsley added, "sacrificed our principles so the fight would be easier."

In fact, the fight ahead was highly difficult. Over the span of a hectic l4 days, Long stumped New Orleans, bringing with him a jazz band, a national press eager to witness his downfall, and thousands of New Orleanians who nightly turned out for street rallies just to see a living legend. With relish, Long heaped scorn on Walmsley. He took note of the Mayor's thin, bald noggin and called him "Turkey Head," scornfully explaining, "You know the turkey head goes on the block, and we're fixing to have a little execution here on January 23 [the day of the l934 mayoral primary]."

On another occasion, Long was even more inventive, telling a huge Mid-City crowd that Walmsley was "not only not fit to be the mayor, he's not fit to be the lackey boy for a coyote."

While few may have understood exactly what that meant, no one could question the election's results: Walmsley handsomely beat Long's candidate, prompting The New York Times to succinctly judge Long's depleted fortunes: "He is well crushed." But over the next 21 months, until Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge, he exacted his revenge, gutting New Orleans of needed state revenue, even depriving, through a series of new laws, the city the right to generate its own revenue.

Even after Long's demise, his allies in Baton Rouge kept up their attack on New Orleans. Finally, in the summer of l936, Walmsley suddenly resigned, realizing the assault would never end until he -- Huey's most prominent foe and thus a detested figure to the Long loyalists still in power -- was gone. Walmsley's successor was one of the most competent and hated mayors in the history of New Orleans: Robert Maestri, a second generation Italian-American with little formal education and an uncanny knack for mangling the English language. In fact, even when Maestri did speak clearly, he said things few could understand: "That's when that fella gave me the nine of hearts," he once reportedly said when recalling someone who had done him wrong.

To save the city from its impending crisis, Maestri loaned $100,000 of his own money, without interest. He embarked upon an ambitious street paving and roads program. One day, he visited a small black church in a poor neighborhood and was troubled to encounter a dirt floor; several hours later a cement truck pulled up to give the parishioners a more lasting foundation, courtesy of the mayor. Because of Maestri's sure fiscal sensibilities, the city's bond rating slowly improved.

But because Maestri had little interest in proper bidding procedures, richly rewarding his friends with lucrative contracts and City Hall patronage, the Uptown elites and the city's press excoriated him. In editorial cartoons Maestri was consistently portrayed as dark-skinned and unshaven, suggesting that perhaps a good deal of the problem with him was his ethnicity. Other times he was drawn as a spider in a web, a rat devouring cheese, and a snake suffocating Lady Democracy in a deadly coil.

For the dashing young Morrison, a World War II veteran who often campaigned in uniform, the l946 mayoral race represented "a marriage of talent and opportunity," says Edward F. Hass, a professor of history at Wright State University and the author of DeLesseps S. Morrison and the Image of Reform. "You had a big infusion of young people coming back to the city after the war," continues Hass, "and a sense throughout the city that people wanted reform." Even so, Maestri remained powerful with the Old Regulars united behind him. At his final campaign rally, Maestri was not only joined by the legendary New Orleans bandleader Louis Prima -- who, as a fellow Italian-American was also a long-time Maestri friend -- but virtually all of the city's elected political leadership. On that same evening, reported The Times-Picayune, an enthusiastic group of women activists -- bearing brooms to sweep the city clean of corruption -- cheered Morrison as he promised to end "the most corrupt machine for all time to come," and likened the reformers' quest with the Allied cause in the recently concluded war.

With a huge Uptown turnout, Morrison shocked everyone -- including, it was said, himself -- by beating Maestri. Oftentimes sanctimonious, Morrison discouraged his enthusiastic supporters from making a symbolic late-night march on Gallier Hall, instructing them instead to "kneel down and thank God for what he has done for us." Some victory party. The New Orleans press, meanwhile, heralded Maestri's defeat, with one New Orleans States headline reading: "Mayor Maestri -- He Came in by the Back Door -- and He Left the Same Way."

Morrison -- who would gradually tire of City Hall and run for governor unsuccessfully three times -- failed to comprehend the dynamic racial changes sweeping over the city he would lead for the next decade and a half. During the angry Ninth Ward school integration crisis in the fall of l960, when dozens of white parents spat on a small group of black children, Morrison lauded the parents for their restraint. The great African-American civil rights attorney A. P. Tureaud, who welcomed Morrison's election with anticipation, is later said in the book Creole in New Orleans to have conceded that Morrison "didn't do a whole lot for Negroes." And his successor, Schiro, who became mayor after Morrison resigned in l961 to become the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, continued the tradition.

"That's what really opened the way up for a guy like Moon Landrieu," says Katz, who remembers the shock local political leaders felt when Landrieu proved he was serious by not only reaching out to black voters, but also promising to appoint African Americans to City Hall jobs that he described as being "above the mop-and-broom level." In 1969, Landrieu was reportedly asked the following question: "I assume you are for the preservation of Southern traditions and way of life?" His response came quickly: "No."

In a city that by l969 not only had a 60 percent white voter registration but had cast more than 58,000 votes the year before for George Wallace in his third-party, anti-civil rights presidential bid, Landrieu's strategy was risky. In fact, even one of the candidates running against Landrieu in the l969 primary, A. Roswell Thompson, proposed a vigorous return to segregation. But Landrieu also moved more prominently in the direction of forming the city's first biracial political coalition by openly welcoming and accepting the support of the then-emerging Southern Organization for United Leadership (SOUL) and Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP), black political organizations that, in their own way, sought to replicate the successes of the earlier Old Regulars.

"He absolutely broke barriers in that l969 race," says Katz of Landrieu, "and that was what got him elected." After winning, Landrieu solidified his biracial support by not only appointing African Americans as heads of city departments, but also opening up City Hall's doors in general: in l970, for example, blacks represented only l9 percent of the jobs in the city's classified civil service. After eight years under Landrieu, that number had increased to 43 percent.

Looking back, Silas Lee thinks Landrieu's l969 election served as a necessary precursor for the even more exciting l977 election of Dutch Morial, who became New Orleans' first black mayor even as the city's registration remained 58 percent white. "He took a gamble that if he could get unified black support and a slice of the white vote, he'd win," Lee says of Morial. "And he did."

But the race was hardly an easy one. The enmity exhibited between councilman-at-large Joseph DiRosa and Morial was the most bitter and electric since the Walmsley-Long face-off 40 years earlier. Anonymous pamphlets appeared portraying Morial as an ape. Others suggested that DiRosa as an Italian American must surely be in the Mob.

For his part, DiRosa appealed to the old white working class vote, the same vote that presumably went so big for Wallace the year before. He excoriated Morial's record as a juvenile court judge, accusing him of being "soft on crime" by returning dangerous criminals to the street. Morial, in response, remarked, "My mother always told me the problem with fighting someone who gets down in the gutter is that you have to stoop to his level." DiRosa thereafter publicly announced that he would never share a stage with Morial again, although Morial -- pugnacious to the end -- continued to tail DiRosa at his various campaign stops where the two men frequently yelled at each until their partisans intervened. In short, it was a classic New Orleans election.

Ironically, on election day it was the Uptown wards, those same wards that confidently backed Walmsley and Morrison in contests against men who were thought to be their social inferiors, that turned out for Morial, providing him with 20 percent of the overall total of white votes. Combined with near-total black support, it was enough to make him mayor. But even in the hour of Morial's great victory, DiRosa managed to steal some of his great enemy's thunder with an ambiguous remark uttered on live television after the election night results were known: "I have mixed emotions," he said of the voters' decision. "It was probably a God-send either way."

Dutch Morial continued Landrieu's tradition of an activist City Hall, using confrontation as a political tool in a way that many New Orleanians of a certain age had never before seen. The result, according to author Arnold Hirsch in Creole New Orleans, was that by the time Morial left office in the mid-l980s, he was "almost totally estranged from all but a relative handful of white New Orleanians."

Added Hirsch: "His constitutionally short fuse and absolute refusal to either be awed or intimidated by the pillars of the white community ... made him vulnerable to the charges of political adversaries who found it more convenient to point to personality than self-interest as the fundamental cause of confrontation."

The overall effect, by l985, was both Morial and confrontation-fatigue, presaging the emergence of the softer and more deliberative Barthelemy. "It's kind of funny," says Katz. "People tend to think of elections as being between the reformers and the rascals, but just as often you see these low-key types of leaders following on the heels of strong mayors. Schiro followed Morrison and Barthelemy followed Dutch."

For the 2002 election, adds Katz, "that would seem to imply, because Marc Morial has been very dynamic during his two terms, that the winner is going to be more laid-back."

Following the defeat of Marc Morial's bid for a third term, the 2002 contest became the first race in eight years, political experts agree, where virtually anything could happen. And yes, says Lee, the 2002 race will be important.

"It's the first big race of the new millennium, a race where you are seeing a good deal of talk about the social and economic positioning of the community, a redefining of where the city is and should be going," says Lee. "2002 has all the makings of a great race, just like the classic elections before."


CORRECTION: In last week's cover story ("Krewe of Wrecks"), we mistakenly listed native New Orleanian Garrett Morris' alma mater; Morris is a graduate of Dillard University. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.
click to enlarge Mayor Robert Maestri (center)
  • Mayor Robert Maestri (center)
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