While the Oct. 22 primary was a very good day for Louisiana's incumbents, the Nov. 19 runoffs were disastrous for many elected officials who remained on the ballot. That was particularly true in St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes.
The difference in the outcomes of those two Election Days, just four weeks apart, underscores several axioms about politics. First, it reminds us that every election is a unique event, even if one election comes right on the heels of another. Second, it drives home the late Tip O'Neill's famous quote, "All politics is local." And third, it is a lesson in the importance of voter turnout.
In St. Bernard, Parish President Craig Taffaro's surprise loss to former top aide David Peralta shows how different a runoff can be from a primary. Taffaro led the four-candidate field on Oct. 22 with 43.7 percent of the vote, followed closely by Peralta at 42 percent. On Nov. 19, Taffaro got only 47.7 percent to Peralta's 52.3 percent.
The difference was not turnout, which was less than 1 percent lower on Nov. 19. Instead, the hard numbers tell the story. On Oct. 22, Taffaro got 5,467 votes out of more than 12,500 cast; Peralta was close behind at 5,259 votes. On Nov. 19, Taffaro picked up less than 500 additional votes for a total of 5,943 out of 12,470 votes cast. Peralta picked up 1,268 votes, which means that Taffaro, like many ill-fated incumbents, basically got his core vote in each election. The votes cast for each of Taffaro's opponents in the primary were essentially cast against him.
Which bears out another political axiom: when an incumbent doesn't get at least 45 percent in the primary, he's in trouble.
That was the case as well for veteran St. Bernard Clerk of Court Lena Torres, who has worked in the clerk's office in one capacity or another for seven decades and was considered a political icon in da parish. In the primary, "Miss Lena" got only 35.5 percent of the vote. Worse yet, she finished 2 points behind challenger Randy Nunez, who went on to win the Nov. 19 runoff with just under 60 percent of the vote.
The red-hot sheriff's race seemed to go against the anti-incumbent grain, but that's where the rule of "all politics is local" comes into play. Incumbent Sheriff Jack Stephens, who had survived several close re-election contests already, wisely chose not to run again. In his place, Chief Deputy Jimmy Pohlmann ran as the virtual incumbent. He was challenged by At-Large Councilman Wayne Landry.
This race got nasty early and often, with candidates swapping charges that ranged from infidelity to corruption and everything in between. At the end of the day, voters decided they liked St. Bernard's low crime rate more than they disliked incumbents; they gave Pohlmann just under 60 percent. Moreover, Landry's tenure on the parish council made him an incumbent of sorts; Pohlmann had never before run for office.
In St. Tammany, Abita Springs Mayor Louis Fitzmorris pulled the upset of the day against veteran Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core, beating her with 50.2 percent of the vote. Core had come under fire in recent years for lavish spending and for mistakenly giving some high-profile folks more than one homestead exemption. Still, few expected her to lose; assessors are rarely tossed out of office.
In Core's race, the difference was all turnout, which was more than 14,200 votes lower on Nov. 19 than it was on Oct. 22. In the primary, Core got more than 17,400 votes. While that was only 38.7 percent of the vote against five challengers, Core would have won on Nov. 19 if she had gotten that many of her supporters back to the polls. Instead, St. Tammany turnout was a paltry 17 percent in the runoff, and Fitzmorris pulled off the upset.
All of which reminds us of those old political lessons. Some incumbents recently learned those lessons the hard way.