When Marc Morial stayed neutral in the 2002 mayor's race, he deserved praise for not trying to handpick his successor. That decision, however, left a huge void in the city's political landscape. For years, The Morial political organization, LIFE, was the city's dominant political group. With no ally in the mayor's chair, with the feds locking up several Morial cronies, and with Morial leaving town to lead the national Urban League, LIFE fell from power.
The vacuum left by Morial's exit didn't last long. It was filled quickly by the political machine of then-Congressman Bill Jefferson, whose Progressive Democrats had been on the scene — and on the ascendancy — for more than a decade. Jefferson's candidate for mayor, former NOPD Chief Richard Pennington, lost the 2002 race to Ray Nagin, but Jefferson's position in Congress and his long track record of getting out the vote on Election Day for his anointed candidates ensured that the Progressive Democrats would become the city's dominant group — and that Jefferson would be the city's top political dog.
Less than a year into Nagin's first term, the mayor's candidate for district attorney, James Gray, ran third in the primary. Nagin stayed out of the runoff, and Jefferson's candidate, Eddie Jordan Jr., won. After that, Jefferson was the undisputed kingpin of New Orleans politics.
Now that Jefferson is on his way to prison and his brother Mose, the muscle behind the Progressive Democrats, is standing trial in federal court on bribery charges, the wheels have come off the Jefferson machine. Truth be told, the machine started breaking down right after the FBI raided Jefferson's homes in August 2005 and found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.
Hurricane Katrina's political legacy was a more engaged electorate, which was bad news for machine politics. Eddie Jordan's gross mismanagement and incompetence led to his "voluntary" resignation as DA in 2007, and Jefferson lost his congressional seat in December 2008.
Bill Jefferson's conviction on federal conspiracy, corruption and racketeering charges in northern Virginia earlier this month was the final nail in his political coffin. Mose Jefferson's ongoing legal troubles (he also faces racketeering charges with sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson; they are scheduled to go to trial early next year) have knocked him from his perch as the city's foremost political organizer.
All of which creates another huge political void, right before the next round of citywide elections.
Reformers and "progressives" no doubt would like to see the end of machine politics, but that's wishful thinking — and contrary to nature (or at least, to Aristotle). Every open mayor's race brings the possibility of a new power center emerging, and it will be interesting to see who, or what, fills the void left by Jefferson's demise.
Aristotle's views on the laws of physics prevailed for almost 2,000 years before they were disproved. The laws of politics have proved more enduring.
NOTE: The print version of this column and the original online version contained an erroneous statement that Assessor Betty Jefferson had lost her bid for re-election in 2006. She was re-elected that year and, as of this writing, is still the 4th District assessor. My apologies for the error.