Tim Mak September 30th, 2010 at 11:36 pm 4 Comments
In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana has undergone a drastic political change, abandoning racialized, identity politics for cross-racial voting. Brought together by tragedy and repulsed by the corruption and inefficiencies laid bare by the hurricane’s effects, voters of all colors rallied to candidates who could be counted on to be competent and to leaders who refrained from race-baiting and corruption.
Where before race was the defining factor in voting, black voters in New Orleans have swept out corrupt and ineffective politicians, even when it meant voting for non-black candidates. Statewide, even parishes that once voted in favor of a white supremacist in 1991 have lined up behind Bobby Jindal.
The incompetence and corruption that riddled New Orleans politics over the last few years led many African-American voters to consider non-black candidates. This didn’t happen overnight – in 2006, only 20% of black voters in New Orleans opted for Mitch Landrieu for mayor, instead siding heavily with incumbent Ray Nagin (who urged residents to rebuild “a chocolate New Orleans”).
“What you had in New Orleans was a delayed Katrina effect,” says Mike Bayham, a Louisiana-based political blogger. And by 2010, their next opportunity to pick a mayor, black voters had seen enough – they gave Landrieu 63% of the vote, giving the city its first white mayor in more than thirty years.
Over the last few years, corrupt African-American members like Rep. Bill ‘Dollar Bill’ Jefferson and District Attorney Eddie Jordan – who fired 43 white employees and replaced them with African-Americans immediately upon his election – have been thrown out. “Black voters have been very disappointed with what black representatives have done,” New Orleans businessman Bryan Wagner told FrumForum. “The era of identity politics in New Orleans is ending.”
“We saw a lot of cross-racial voting post-Katrina,” concurred long-time New Orleans resident Fenn French. “Not only were people turned off by the corruption of Bill Jefferson, but tragedy brought people together too.”
Of course, black voters did leave New Orleans after Katrina, and many struggle to return even now. African Americans accounted for 66.7% of the city’s population before Katrina, compared to 60.7% today. But that drop alone doesn’t account for the sea change in voter attitudes in New Orleans.
Not only have voters chosen a white mayor, but also in the last few years have elected Vietnamese-American Congressman Joseph Cao, and Indian-American Governor Bobby Jindal. New Orleans’ City Council, majority black since 1985, is now comprised of a 5-2 majority in favor of white politicians. Eddie Jordan, the district attorney mentioned above, has been replaced by a white prosecutor.
But African-American voters are not the only ones who have shifted in their attitudes. In 2003, Bobby Jindal performed quite poorly in Northern Louisiana in his first bid for the governorship – a largely white region. By 2007, Jindal won the governorship with strong support in parishes like Livingston Parish and St. Bernard Parish – parishes which had supported white supremacist David Duke in 1991 for governor and have remained demographically quite similar.
“No question his race was an issue that kept Bobby [Jindal] from winning in 2003,” says Bayham. “Katrina reminded people that competence mattered, and competence trumped some of the old [racial] prejudices.”
Post-Katrina, voters realized that race-based politics had not served them well, leading to a profound shift in voting attitudes – effectiveness, not skin color, is quickly becoming the dominant qualification for public office.
And Louisianans have been served well by this change – an education system in New Orleans that is fast becoming one of the premiere models for the country; the attention they deserve to fight the consequences of the BP oil spill; and more integrity than has hitherto been seen in their politics. Thanks to a new openness to cross-racial voting, voters will make future generations proud.
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